I woke up late on Saturday morning to good news in my email inbox: a new episode of ‘Horace and Pete,’ Louis C.K.’s online series, had dropped. The first part of the email was fun and games as usual, but then there was a PS, during which C.K. delivered a lengthy and much-publicized rant against Donald Trump. As one might expect, C.K. had choice words for Trump, calling him a liar, a bigot, the equivalent of Hitler–all fair labels. Most saliently, though, C.K. called Trump out for a couple of things: he stated that he’s “not one of you. He is one of him,” urging readers not to be fooled by Trump’s promises. And he described, at length, Trump’s bullying, threatening tendencies, his pure meanness. Meanness should be distinguished from cruelty: meanness is inherent, deep, and yet also tacky; cruelty is slightly different, possibly situational. There’s a reason why C.K.’s words on the meanness and pretense of Trump should be taken seriously, and that his rant should not be dismissed as yet another self-serious celebrity’s conscious political statement. The reason is that C.K. is a student, practically a scholar, of both these qualities in humans. This knowledge is in glowing and wince-worthy evidence in Episode 6 of ‘Horace and Pete.’
Pretense and meanness are, in fact, what the series is all about. Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) are cousins who thought they were brothers until Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), their late uncle (to Horace)/father (to Pete), revealed otherwise, running a bar which seems like a solid establishment but is in fact losing money and serving watered-down drinks. Horace presents as affable but is in fact highly dishonest in his relationships, and, in some ways, mean-spirited, with a damaged, unhappy daughter and a son who doesn’t speak to him. Pete seems like a retiring sort, but is in fact heavily medicated—without his meds, he begins having visions. And then there’s the meanness. Throughout this brilliant series, characters say unabashedly mean things to each other, from Uncle Pete’s call to Horace to say hi to his “fat daughter” onwards. The drama’s characters regularly tell each other to go fuck themselves, believably, with full-throated anger. And they do mean things too; in one particularly harrowing and beautifully executed episode, we learn that Horace’s marriage ended because he slept with his wife’s sister. Repeatedly. And we learn this after Horace’s previous wife has announced that she’s cheating on her current partner with his father.
Episode 6 cranks this sort of ultra-meanness up a notch. It
begins benignly, as Pete springs around his bedroom, preparing for a blind
date. Then we cut to the date itself, as Pete and Jenny, played with great
honesty and forwardness by Hannah Dunne, muddle around a bit and then speak openly with each other about their attributes and shortcomings. Nothing mean yet, really, but in the next scene, which takes place after the two have become a couple, Pete and his new partner have dinner with Horace and Horace’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco), a tightly wound, short of phrase, long of vindictiveness, cancer patient. The dinner starts awkward and gets worse as probing questions turn into snappish judgments (she’s 26, he’s 46). And then, finally, the kicker: Horace explains, explicitly and bluntly, Pete’s condition. Crushed, Jenny leaves, but not before telling Horace and his sister off, as Pete sits, head bowed, destroyed and ashamed. After Pete leaves, Horace and Sylvia go on eating dinner. So, the siblings have taken an unstable, lonely man, who was clearly enjoying a chance at happiness, decided that he wasn’t being forthright enough about his past, made a decision for him, crushed him, and then savored a plate of family-style spaghetti and meatballs. If you want a definition of meanness, look no farther. But simultaneously, if you want a definition of nakedness, the absence of pretense, the conclusion of this dinner gathering would be an apt illustration, as well. Nothing is hidden. Everything is revealed. Everything is ugly. Pass the parmesan.
What is the origin of nastiness? The sad reality is that its origins are often hard to place. One could hazard a number of explanations for why Horace spills Pete’s beans for him: he didn’t want a painful situation to develop later; he was doing his cousin a favor by not allowing him to become involved with a woman not mature enough to handle Pete’s reality; he was protecting Pete’s stability by stopping things before he got in over his head; he was bringing truth in where there had been none before. But none of these explanations are quite as strong as: he felt like it. And: humans are like that. So, the spectacle of Trump must be quite interesting to Louis C.K.: a man who says whatever he wants, and who promises to commit acts of great barbarism if elected President, for no other reason than impulse. Simultaneously, Trump is a pretender, someone who acts as if he has compassion for the downtrodden and yet has none, clearly. C.K. understands this man, because he’s watched this behavior in others, and he has allowed it to spark ‘Horace and Pete,’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Louie.’ In C.K.’s dramas, the urge to be nasty or brutal or mean floats around like a life force, at times seeming like its own character. There are other impulses as well, but the injustice humans do to each other is often the catalyst behind each storyline. Dissembling is germane to C.K.’s work as well; C.K. plays himself, in a sense, in his dramas and in his stand-up–and yet who is this man? C.K. pretends to be a likable schlub, an everyman, a junk food addict, an ordinary guy–and yet, look: he’s assembled a remarkable cast for ‘Horace and Pete,’ with a theme song by one of the best songwriters of the past 50 years, a drama packed with incisive, acute analysis of American sadness. Not the work of a schlub! C.K. demonstrates by example that there are two kinds of dissembling. His is the good kind. Trump’s? Something else altogether.