Luck

Cusmano Cesaretti/HBO

David Milch and his team of thoroughbreds are in no rush to set the pace in HBO's layered look at racetrack life.

Do not bet against David Milch on HBO's new horse-racing series, Luck. One of television's finest writers (Deadwood, NYPD Blue, etc.), Milch is a master of dialogue and even a bit underappreciated for his ability to instill a sense of place in any show he makes. Now, imagine him writing about something he truly knows. He's been a fan of horse racing and gambling for ages (the latter interest responsible for some of the most wide-eyed, mostly unwritten stories about Milch the industry has whispered about), and he's put it all together in Luck, a drama that saturates the viewer in life at the track.

The series also is executive produced by filmmaker Michael Mann, who shot the pilot and set the template for its look. The mise-en-scene is both beautiful and grubby, and there are cinematic flourishes that make each episode of Luck look like a one-hour movie.

Fantastic performers litter the series in one of those only-on-cable scenarios. Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Michael Gambon, John Ortiz and other exceptional character actors bring life to the world Milch has created (at Santa Anita Park and around Los Angeles).

One stylistic element Milch uses in Luck should be familiar to anyone who has fallen in love with HBO fare (or, conversely, had problems with it). He takes his time. Meaning, Milch drops the viewer into the horse-racing subculture -- jockeys, owners, trainers, stable workers, early-arriving gamblers and officials responsible for determining everything from gate positions to the process of claiming horses after races -- and he lets that lifestyle soak in.

Nolte plays Walter Smith, aka "The Old Man," a trainer-owner still reeling from an insurance scam that killed a beloved horse. Richard Kind plays Joey Rathburn, a stammering agent for fringe jockeys (newbies, played-out riders, etc.). Kerry Condon is Rosie, a female jockey from Ireland who is trying to graduate from warming up horses to getting a mount. Jill Hennessy is Jo, the veterinarian. And there's a grubby quartet of track gamblers: wheelchair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn), dim bulb Lonnie (Ian Hart), dimmer bulb Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and full-blown gambling addict Jerry (Jason Gedrick).

While viewers are digesting all that, Milch layers in the bigger drama at hand: Hoffman's character, Chester "Ace" Bernstein, a potential buyer of the track, is just getting out of prison (aided by his driver and confidant, Gus, played by Farina) after taking a drug-possession fall for a family member. He knows he was set up by his former partner (Gambon), and Luck lets the master plan of revenge that Ace is concocting unfold slowly.

The series will require patience. But each episode is more enriching, more engrossing than the last, and with Hoffman's superb turn at the forefront, this smart, ambitious show looks to truly pay off in the homestretch.

Airdate 9 p.m. Jan. 29 (HBO)
Cast Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Michael Gambon, John Ortiz, Kerry Condon, Jill Hennessy, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster, Jason Gedrick
Creator David Milch

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