Gold Standard: ‘Horace and Pete’ should be there with ‘People v. O.J. Simpson’ on Emmy noms morning

Not long ago, I was in New York, waiting to interview Claire Danes at a cafe around the corner from her Greenwich Village apartment.

She arrived a few minutes late, apologetic. But she had a good excuse. She had been watching the pilot episode of Louis C.K.'s extraordinary drama series “Horace and Pete.”

“I just paused it at the intermission,” Danes told me. “It’s so good. It really seems like he’s taking his work to another level with this.”

C.K. financed, wrote and directed “Horace and Pete,” and then dropped the first episode on his website in late January. No notice. No fanfare. The show stars C.K. and Steve Buscemi playing the title characters, the latest in a long line of sad sack Horace and Petes running a 100-year-old Brooklyn bar. A new episode was released each Saturday until the series concluded April 2.

You can buy the episodes individually on C.K.'s website, with the season costing $31. (Because there’s a lot to absorb in terms of content and tone and approach and because C.K. doesn’t offer any handrails for his audience, I’d encourage you to give it at least three episodes before drawing any conclusions.) Buscemi, playing Pete, a brave, good man who, as he put it, drew a “bad straw” in life, has never been better. His work here will just floor you. And the rest of the cast, including Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange and, in one remarkable showcase episode, Laurie Metcalf, are equally as good.


Emmy voters need to watch this show. But will they? In a year that began with FX Networks Chief Executive John Landgraf lamenting that there is “simply too much television,” voters are now obliged to consider the 400-plus programs (and all the performances contained within) that aired on TV as well as a landmark like “Horace and Pete,” which C.K. self-distributed on his website so he wouldn’t have to compromise the content.

C.K.'s do-it-yourself spirit also means that he will be paying out of his own pocket to have more than 19,000 3-DVD sets of “Horace and Pete” mailed to the eligible voting members of the Television Academy. That’s commitment. It’s also a leap of faith that Emmy voters will indeed take the time to watch a raw, deeply moving family drama.

Time is the issue here. There will be nearly 8,000 submitted entries for the 2016 Emmys, says Television Academy Chairman and Chief Executive Bruce Rosenblum, up from about 6,500 last year. Part of that can be pinned on the addition of three short-form series categories, recognizing programs, mostly digital, that run 15 minutes or less. (This better result in an Emmy nomination for “Firefly” alum Alan Tudyk’s hilarious meta-comedy “Con Man.”)

But mostly, the hundreds and hundreds of additional Emmy entries are the result of more distribution platforms producing more shows, resulting in a DVR-busting pileup of programming that, short of propping your eyelids open around the clock, defeats even the most committed viewer.

What that glorious, Golden Age glut means is that Emmy voters need to be A) diligent, B) open to sampling new shows (Rosenblum says he makes a point of watching one episode of just about every new series, narrowing down the keepers from there) and C) willing to let old favorites go when they’ve passed their prime. “House of Cards” is not one of the seven best dramas on TV. Neither is the dearly departed “Downton Abbey.” With so many choices, voters must be nimble in knowing what shows and performers merit accolades from season to season.

The problem is that the surplus of choices likely leads to a vote so splintered that name-brand shows like “Downton” and “House of Cards” have a built-in advantage. As much as I’d like to think that a few thousand members of the Television Academy spent the past year catching up with the first three seasons of the sadly still-never-nominated “The Americans” so they could properly appreciate the brilliance of its fourth season, I’m not holding my breath.

That’s the downside of long-form narrative television when it comes to the Emmys. If voters don’t catch on right away, the nominations may never come. (“The Wire,” often cited as the greatest show in the history of television, didn’t receive Emmy nominations for drama series or its stellar acting.)

Playing catch-up isn’t an issue with limited series, making that Emmy category possibly the best representation of where television is at in 2016. The competition is brutal this year, featuring three shows -- “American Crime,” “Show Me a Hero” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” -- that expertly addressed issues of race and social class in very different ways and a fourth, “Fargo,” that offered sharp, sublime storytelling.

With its high profile and deep acting ensemble, look for “O.J.” to lead the way on Emmy nominations morning. (The hair and makeup team deserves a nomination for John Travolta’s eyebrows alone.)

But if there’s any justice, C.K.'s “Horace and Pete” will be making headlines of its own when Emmy noms are announced. Its inclusion would amount to a knowing acknowledgment that the medium can’t be defined or contained.

“You’ve got to wade through a lot, but so much of it is terrific,” Rosenblum says. “It’s a good problem to have.”