Now, let’s take a look at the gentlemen. The first episode introduces the family of Horace and Pete: The old fight the young; the women, the men; the disinherited, the inheritors. We learn about men’s sins and crimes against women. Younger men, not made of the same rough stuff, live with the soft bigotry of low expectations. Women are falling into confusions. They had their expectations of men, for good and mostly for bad, but men have changed into something less manly, more democratic.
Louis wants to show something about this family, and therefore the family in general in our hyper-individualistic-meritocratic times. Most importantly, he wants to show that the family is endangered in a way that goes beyond economic concerns. Family is supposed to give meaning to human suffering. Compelling portraits of human beings are supposed to replace the prejudice in favor of individual freedom, first of all by revealing the psychological source of that prejudice: in the collapse of the American family.
Young people are first and foremost individuals; they choose for themselves and more or less make up identities for themselves, too. Who wants to be bound against his will in a family? Maybe family is a museum piece, then! But it turns out that the young have taken up one part of what used to be called manliness: aloofness. They strive to break free of community, to find manly self-sufficiency, yet they do not understand this part of themselves. Nor do they understand their forebears, who were almost defined by it. Community has always caught up with the manly desire to move and to discover what is new. But will it in the future?
The family is what has, in the past, tamed the manly desire for self-sufficiency. It has brought men back to the good of self-mastery in the service of others. This self-mastery and devotion was not without its rewards. What was men’s reward for being tamed by family? Respect and aid in old age. But that’s long gone in today’s world. People live far longer, healthier lives — we’re not as needy in certain respects. The costs of health care end up defining civilization, and each man stands alone before his doctor. And knowledge in an age of constant innovation favors the young and not the old. So what now is the basis for respect for our elders? It doesn’t look like knowledge. So what’s the basis for holding families and communities together now? Where does authority reside?
Louis C.K. the comic-poet brings out these themes to puncture the contemporary prejudices in favor of individuals and self-sufficiency. Horace and Pete works best at this level, where technologically powered individualism affects everyone, rich and poor. Judged by the oligarchic standards of productivity, most people would be called failures. The family once defended most people against this rational judgment, but the lower classes commit too many sins to have happy families. We see endless quarreling where no one will shut up: No one can quite live down the past. There is no forgiveness and a constant renewal of quarrels amidst new sins. And the higher classes justify success by defining human beings only as individuals, which deprives people of the experience of the goodness of devotion: They don’t even know there is a past.
Everything on the show is about how people deal with one another. Everything suggests that only family binds people enough that they suffer together instead of falling apart. But can that be enough?
Horace’s sister says, Air rights will make millionaires of us. Horace asks, How does that work? She says, Tear down this building, build something high, up in the air, that’s worth millions. He asks, How is air worth millions? This is the oldest joke about philosophy, of course, also from Aristophanes. The reduction of the world to intellect, which is invisible like air, is destroying the family. But Horace trusts the past in a way that prohibits building castles in the sky. He thinks about human beings in human terms as opposed to economic abstractions. He lacks the intelligence for acquisitiveness. He is looking for something else, for something that might defend family in a world in which he has learned he is not going to succeed.
For a show set in Brooklyn, this money joke might sound like another story about gentrification. There certainly are jokes about hipsters on the show: they have to pay higher prices for beer, because they drink ironically, that is, they mock the lower classes. But Horace and Pete is not about class conflict: It’s about the meaning of class conflict. It’s trying to say that the rich and successful might learn a few things from the poor and unsuccessful. The first thing, of course, is going back to a more human, less abstract view of the world. Science, progress, technology all make us think in terms of problems and solutions. But comedy assumes that human nature is not a soluble problem. The sophisticated jokes are supposed to defend a basic statement about human nature: the need for family.
The crime that puts an end to political association, aside from incest, is parricide. It is the ugliest way to show that the old and the young have no community. This show avoids that as much as possible. Old Pete dies, whose had run the bar without a right to own it. He was a holdout from an older America, before the revolution that democratized society in the sixties. Now, his inheritors have to own up to their inheritance. Horace decides to change ownership to include his sister. Only men had previously owned, by faith, without contract. She comes around to the opinion that making millions by selling her birthright would not make her free. They both change in order to be able to live together.
Brother and sister agree to take responsibility for younger Pete, who was crippled by insanity because his parents could not be bothered. For a show all about hippie peace, love, and understanding, it’s a remarkable attack on the Baby Boomers as a generation. The money quote is, “They could no longer educate sons, but they did not learn to educate daughters.” It’s the fallout from the Sixties that Horace has to live down, and family allows him to do it with love. What’s left in the ruins of lonely people is family.