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Louis C.K.’s online miniseries Horace and Pete might change TV as we know it

It might be the watershed moment independent television has been waiting for.

Horace and Pete
Steve Buscemi, Louis C.K., and Edie Falco star in Horace and Pete.
LouisCK.net

The best thing about Horace and Pete, Louis C.K.'s online-only series (newly on Hulu!) about two cousins who own and operate a Brooklyn bar, was how messy it was.

The show had flaws, to be sure — chief among them were frequent discussions of current events that meshed poorly with its more timeless qualities — but they only reminded you of how unique and special it truly seemed. Horace and Pete threw back to an earlier version of pop culture, when the stage dominated, and to an earlier version of TV, when most productions were broadcast live, in front of multiple cameras.

It was a quietly confident show, making full use of the fact that it wasn't supported by ads and didn't need to incorporate commercial breaks or fit a network-mandated time slot. (The shortest episode ran just 30 minutes, while the longest ran 67.)

It was driven more by feeling and conversation than incident, and even for C.K., whose auteurist ambitions previously reached their fullest flowering on his FX comedy Louie, it was an iconoclastic project with huge ambitions. The show's heart-wrenching finale is like nothing else you'll see on TV this year.

But that's not what excites me most about Horace and Pete. A good TV show is ultimately just a good TV show. Horace and Pete, like Louie before it, hints at where television might be headed.

What's the future of independent TV?

Michael K. Williams.
Sundance's Hap and Leonard is part of a new wave of TV series created and directed by indie film auteurs (in this case, Jim Mickle).
SundanceTV

For several years now, I've watched as independent TV has grown by leaps and bounds, and I've been waiting for it to experience a breakthrough similar to the one indie film had in the wake of 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

Heck, Steven Soderbergh, the director of that film, has even turned his gaze toward television, helming all episodes of Cinemax's The Knick and producing series like Amazon's Red Oaks and Starz's The Girlfriend Experience. If there's a time that's right for indie TV, I feel like it's now or never.

But independent television has always faced one major obstacle, namely that TV distribution methods are largely controlled by corporate entities. If you make an independent film, you can release it to the world on your own dime, or submit it to festivals, or just enjoy it in the privacy of your own home. A movie is finite, making film a good medium for wannabe directors to dabble in.

TV, by comparison, is theoretically infinite. There's no guarantee The Simpsons won't still be making episodes in the year 3000. And that means the networks and streaming services that distribute TV content still have a lot more sway than, say, the big film studios. Producing all those episodes of television is expensive, which means reasonably deep pockets are required just to enter the game.

This is changing, of course. Cable entities like Sundance are embracing the sort of niche programming that wouldn't have made it past the script stage even 10 years ago, and more indie filmmakers are turning to TV as a way to get their passion projects made (as with director Jim Mickle's Sundance series Hap and Leonard). Similarly, web series offer a kind of indie TV that boasts lower budgets, smaller viewership, and more modest production scales than more mainstream TV.

In the fall of 2014 I spoke with Terence Gray, director of the New York Television Festival, about the evolution of independent TV over the first decade of that festival's existence. His argument was that the indie TV boom was imminent. Series like Fargo and True Detective — shows that tell a new story with new characters every season — were opening up the idea of what TV could be, to the degree that he thought indie TV's big breakthrough would be some sort of independently produced miniseries.

And if that sounds a lot like Horace and Pete, well, you see where this is going.

Louis C.K. has changed TV once before

louie sarah baker
Louie, Louis C.K.'s FX series, changed TV when it debuted in 2010.
FX

Louie proved to be a surprisingly influential show after it debuted in 2010. Its then-unique approach — give a filmmaker total control of most aspects of the production, helping to keep budgets low — quickly spread throughout the cable universe, most notably being used by HBO (with shows like Girls, Looking, and Togetherness) and Comedy Central (particularly Broad City). None of those later series were as auteur-driven as Louie — which C.K. writes, directs, edits, and stars in — but they were built off the same general principles.

And to be sure, Horace and Pete comes with several built-in advantages that a miniseries produced by some 22-year-old in Houston won't have. C.K. was able to announce the project with a simple email to those who'd previously downloaded his standup specials from his website, seeding Horace and Pete's audience. He also obviously had enough industry connections to pull in a cast that includes famous actors like Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, and Alan Alda, to say nothing of the budget required to mount the production.

But he also, ingeniously, looked to the earliest days of television to keep costs down. By and large, Horace and Pete joins a small but growing movement of programs that take their cues from the live dramas and comedies of the earliest days of television. Episodes unfold on just a handful of sets, with small casts. They're filmed with multiple cameras, in order to capture as many angles of each take as possible. That allows C.K., the producer, to emphasize speed (which helps rein in spending) while also giving C.K., the director, plenty of material to work with.

I don't quite expect Horace and Pete to have the immediate, seismic effect that Louie did, at least not right away. But if we look at general trends for television, it's not hard to imagine the TV industry splitting apart in much the same way as the film industry — with "big studios" (in this case networks) primarily focused on flashy, big-budget productions and smaller indie distributors picking up the sorts of projects that used to be the networks' bread and butter.

Indeed, this divide is already forming. More and more networks are trying to compete by loading their projects with all-star casts and budgets that flirt with those of feature films. Meanwhile, some networks are pulling back and focusing on more artistically challenging work (like Sundance) or on serving underserved audiences (like WGN America).

As in film, the split won't happen immediately, and will likely take several decades to fully play out. But it's not a bad road map for where things are headed. (You can even see most major networks setting up what amount to "specialty" arms — as with FX's relationship with kid sibling network FXX.)

Horace and Pete fits nicely in this void, because it suggests a way in which outsider voices might eventually enter the TV landscape. The show is hardly a fit for a traditional TV network or even a streaming one, but it became a minor sensation among TV fans, simply because it felt so new and different. We won't see its approach copied overnight, but there's somebody, somewhere, with no connections in the industry, who saw Horace and Pete and said, "I can do that." And someday, they will.

You can download all of Horace and Pete at LouisCK.net or watch it on Hulu.