One of the cornerstones of Louie was how the series tracked the evolution of a man slowly learning that he’s out of his depth in a changing world. The Louie character believes he’s a progressive, understanding individual that accepts everyone for who they are, but when really he’s replete with unconscious biases and prejudice that he’s forced to confront by living in a diverse society. One of the main hurdles to understanding your own privilege is to realize that no matter how much back-patting you do and lip-service you pay, you’ll never fully comprehend the lived experiences of those struggling to gain acceptance in this world. It’s easy for a white guy to say they’re a feminist, or they’re not a racist, or that they’re a generally open-minded person, but the more difficult part is to act like it in the moment. In “Episode 7” of Horace And Pete, it’s something Horace has to confront directly when his one-night stand Rhonda (Karen Pittman) tells him the next morning that she may be a trans woman.
Let’s get this out of the way: It’s problematic for a cisgender writer/director to examine transphobia, especially without explicit participation of any trans performers or writers, even with the best of intentions; no matter which way you slice it, it’s an attempt to tackle a pervasive, deeply-ingrained issue from an outsider’s perspective. As much as I love C.K.’s comedy and writing, he’s occasionally guilty of over-reaching outside of his own perspective, not just with regards to gender, but also with race and queer issues. This over-reaching isn’t inherently troubling, and it’s almost always rooted in a working-through of his own cultural biases, but it can produce mixed, often cringeworthy results, this being no exception. Ultimately, there is little to be gained artistically from hearing C.K.’s opinions on trans issues simply because he doesn’t have the necessary lived experience to best explore them.
With all of that being said, C.K. mostly stays honest by examining the issues from a befuddled straight man’s perspective, and directing all of the criticism at Horace, both his flustered reaction to the news and his own flawed sense of liberalism. Horace trips over himself to tell Rhonda that trans men and women should receive equal rights (“legally…you know, the Constitution…), but then falls into his own prejudices by implying that men who have sex with trans women are deviants, and that trans women have an obligation to tell straight men that they were “once a man.” Rhonda sets her fiery sights on Horace and interrogates him about his own crippled sense of masculinity with very direct, pointed questions, like “Do you think that a person who transitions from being a man into being a woman is as much a woman as someone who was born a woman?” Horace never really provides “good” answers to any of these questions, falling back on comfortable, naïve narratives about treating everyone the same, and yet when push comes to shove, he still freaks out at the mere idea that he may have had sex with a trans woman. Rhonda is quick to point out that Horace’s own sexual past—specifically, impregnating both his ex-wife and her sister (which explains the constantly chilly reception from Alice and why his son won’t talk with him)—is much more abnormal than anything that may have happened last night, but Horace can’t let it go despite asking to see Rhonda again before she leaves.
Horace’s conversation with Rhonda dovetails thematically with an earlier conversation he has with Alice about her love life in which Horace claims that it’s impossible for a father not to condescend to her daughter because they’re unequal in terms of age. Rhonda and Horace are not equal in terms of knowledge and cultural sensitivity: Horace’s perspective is much more blinkered and discriminatory than he realizes, and Rhonda’s is much more clear-eyed and inclusive. Horace can’t accept that he had a great time with a woman last night and that it doesn’t matter who she was before they met, and for all of his liberal insistence, Rhonda knows the score exactly: Acceptance from straight men only comes when they have sex with a trans woman and “don’t think [they’ve been] cheated into doing something gay.” Is Rhonda actually a trans woman or is she just fucking with Horace to make a point? The answer to that is irrelevant based on Horace’s prejudiced reaction, and that’s Rhonda’s point.
It’s strange to spend this entire review discussing a scene that basically makes up the last ten minutes of a 50-minute episode, especially when the episode in question is jam-packed with funny digressions and plot details: Sylvia kicking Kurt out of the bar for saying the word “cunt,” near the end of his homophobia-laced retelling of Sodom and Gomorrah; Rick Shapiro monologuing about strength, weakness, and finding women stricken with cancer; Alice introducing her boyfriend Eric (Connor O’Malley) to the gang; and Sylvia finding out that she’s cancer free. “Episode 7” is arguably the first episode to lay down groundwork for future episodes: Pete tries to convince a member of the mayor’s security detail to get the mayor to have a drink at the bar so he’d be more likely to declare Horace and Pete’s a landmark, a defense measure against Sylvia trying to sell the place. It’s a digressive, loose episode that even opens with a really funny meta commentary on C.K.’s much-publicized email comparing Trump to Hitler.
But the last scene between Horace and Rhonda both fills up and takes the air out of the entire episode. On some level, it’s just arrogant for someone like C.K. to think he can tackle these issues in depth or with any kind of clarity, evidenced especially by his unfamiliarity with the accepted cultural language (he frequently employs “transgender” when he really means “trans”). On the other hand, what better way for C.K. to explore transphobia than by basically admitting his own limitations in the discourse, and how he really doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Again, there’s little to be gained from C.K. tackling this culturally relevant issue, like the veteran comic that he is, but it’s also strange to discuss artistic texts in terms of “gain” at all. The result is a uniquely mixed bag that could only come from Horace And Pete.
- The meta commentary opens with Kurt reading the paper about a “comedian asshole” named “Casey Lewistein” who’s apparently telling people how to vote. Horace meekly says that he doesn’t think he was trying to tell people how to vote, but Kurt shuts him down: “No, no, no, just tell your dumb jokes and shut the fuck up so that grown folks can talk.”
- As with pretty much every guest star who shows up on Horace And Pete, Karen Pittman was fantastic as Rhonda, and if you like her work here, check out her work on The Americans.
- Apparently Budweiser is charging Horace and Pete’s more for only buying from them. When Sylvia suggests they just serve other beers, Pete balks at that idea. It’s interesting to see Pete take up the “tradition” mantle in the family after his father passed.
- Rick Shapiro is truly a phenomenal presence and has a voice and a cadence like no other, and it’s thrilling to see him on here.
- “Really? That’s where you draw the line?”
- “It annoys me that my father makes you nervous because if you knew him personally you wouldn’t care what he thinks.”
- “People don’t want to look at the weak because it reminds them of their own weakness, but what they don’t get it’s that when someone’s struggling, it means he’s strong because the weak don’t struggle, they just die. So whatever you think of me, I’m alive.”