Screen Test

Louis C.K.'s new show Horace And Pete is darkly funny, insightful and wonderfully unexpected

Louis C.K.'s low-budget comedy-drama about a Brooklyn dive bar hooks viewers with a subversive and unexpected plotline

Audiences are more adventurous than ever about how they watch TV, whether it is on disc, on demand, online, by subscription or, for the resourceful, by whatever means necessary.

If only this willingness to experiment with the avenues extended to what most people actually end up watching.

The fact that Adam Sandler's execrable comedy western The Ridiculous 6 is the most-viewed movie ever on the streaming service Netflix suggests otherwise, though. And Sandler, who has not made a good movie in 12 years (since 50 First Dates, 2004), is still more of a draw than the subject of this column: Horace And Pete, a weird, melancholic and low-budget comedy-drama about a Brooklyn dive bar, called Horace And Pete's, where nothing really happens except for the quotidian sorrows of its middle-aged staff and patrons.

Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi (Fargo, 1996) play the titular bar owners. Having inherited this dusty 100-year-old establishment from a long line of other Horaces and Petes, they now co-own it with their sister Sylvia (Nurse Jackie's Edie Falco).

The stellar cast is rounded out by Jessica Lange (American Horror Story) and Alan Alda (M*A*S*H).

There are no A-list names here and little by way of eye-candy, much less a score or even a laugh track. And if that does not put you off, the whole thing is basically shot and acted like a long and rather bleak stage play.

Yet this Web series written and directed by C.K. might be one of the most original offerings on TV right now. Once you get into it, it is utterly absorbing.

The show does, however, come with a health warning from its creator, who says: "If you need to hear a joke every few minutes, do not watch my show. We curse a lot, we say terrible things... It's awful."

But if the idea of listening in on a Socratic debate about politics or fragments of horribly intimate conversations between ornery drunks at a bar holds any sort of perverse appeal for you, this is worth investigating.

For the many fans of C.K.'s stand-up comedy or his critically revered sitcom Louie, where he plays a comedian and divorced dad living in New York, it will not be a hard sell.

Yet to air in Singapore, Louie's five seasons since 2010 have been nothing short of inspired. Those comedy-drama hybrid shows that are all the rage today, such as Togetherness, Love and Transparent? This series was the precursor to them all with its doleful, incisively funny and occasionally surreal take on parenting, divorce, ageing, depression, dating, sex, gender politics, race, comedy and all the glorious complications of the human condition.

C.K. has put the Emmy-winning show on extended hiatus in order to replenish his creative reserves and in the meantime is embarking on passion projects such as Horace And Pete. As with his comedy specials, he has taken the unusual step of selling Horace And Pete directly from his own website (the pilot episode is downloadable for US$5, or S$6.80, and subsequent episodes US$3 each).

And he deliberately released the series earlier this year with no fanfare, advance publicity or even a description, although he has since said it is like what happens at the bar in the sitcom Cheers "between 2 and 5pm".

Reviews like this one undermine the element of surprise that C.K. wanted to preserve for his viewers, so here is a mild spoiler alert for anyone who wants to go along with that.

The experience of not knowing what to expect and then watching the first episode, with its long silences, black-screen intermissions, and elegiac Paul Simon theme tune plus a few guitar chords here and there, is disorienting and, initially, a bit of a slog.

But without warning, you are then dropped into the middle of a captivating story by Horace's ex-wife about cheating on her new husband with his geriatric father, a spirited X-rated retelling of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, and a jaw-dropping morning-after conversation between Horace and his one-night-stand - and you are hooked.

It is subversive, darkly funny, insightful and wonderfully unexpected. There is also the added immediacy of the series being set in the present, with the American primary race unfolding in the background and prompting some trenchant conversations about electing a female president or comparing Donald Trump to Hitler. C.K. made experimental art films before he became one of the most successful comedians in the United States, and it shows.

That also means Horace And Pete is probably not everyone's cup of tea - the sort of show that would never see the light of day if it depended on ratings, advertisers or traditional distribution channels. But unlike a lot of niche TV that would not survive in the wild, this is well worth a look.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'Funny, surreal and weird'. Print Edition | Subscribe