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Let’s jump right to the most obvious of all sentiments when it comes to HBO’s new horse racing/gambling series Luck: Do not bet against David Milch in this one.
One of television’s finest writers (Deadwood, NYPD Blue, etc.) Milch is master of dialog and even a bit underappreciated for his ability to instill a sense of place in any series he makes (even John From Cincinnati, his surfing/spiritual/oddball take that lasted only one season HBO). What separates Deadwood from all the pretenders that have attempted to be authentic Westerns since then, is that Milch made you feel the town of Deadwood in your bones. Beyond that, he got the colors down beautifully, created a set of impeccably distinctive characters and, even though Deadwood ended disappointingly short in three seasons, will forever be known as a series that redefined what you could do with the written word in a television series.
Now, imagine Milch writing about something he truly knows. He’s been a fan of horseracing and gambling for ages (the latter trait infusing some of the most wide-eyed, mostly unwritten stories about Milch the industry has ever whispered about). And now he’s put it all together in Luck, a series that, above all else, saturates the viewer in what life is like at the track – for those desperate to play the ponies out front and those who ply their trade in the paddock and stables, mostly unseen by the public.
It’s that element – bringing to television a subculture that hasn’t been seen quite like this – that makes Luck so rich and compelling.
The series is also executive produced by filmmaker Michael Mann, who shot the pilot and set the template for the look of the series. The mise-en-scene here is both beautiful and grubby and there are cinematic flourishes throughout Luck that make it look like a one hour movie unspooling each episode.
The series is also littered with fantastic actors in one of those only-on-cable scenarios. Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Michael Gambon, John Ortiz, Joan Allen, Jason Gedrick, Kerry Condon, Richard Kind, Jill Hennessy and a number of exceptional character actors who bring life to the world-view Milch has created (at Santa Anita racetrack in particular, and surrounding Los Angeles as well).
One stylistic element that Milch uses in Luck should be familiar to anyone who has fallen in love (or conversely, had problems with) HBO fare. He takes his time. Meaning, Milch drops the viewer into the horse racing subculture – jockeys, owners, trainers, stable workers, early-arriving gamblers, track officials responsible for determining the gate position that horses start from to the process of claiming certain horses after races. And he lets that lifestyle soak in.
For example, Nolte plays Walter Smith, aka “The Old Man,” a trainer-owner still reeling from an insurance scam that killed a beloved horse he trained. Kind plays Joey Rathburn, the stammering agent for fringe jockeys (newbies, played out riders, etc.). Ortiz is wonderful as Turo Escalante, a famed trainer at odds with his own business. Condon is Rosie, a female jockey from Ireland trying to graduate from warming up the horses to actually getting a mount. Hennessy is Jo, the veterinarian horse specialist. And there’s a grubby quartet of track gamblers – wheel-chair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn), dim-bulb Lonnie (Ian Hart), dimmer-bulb Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and full-blown gambling addict Jerry (Gedrick).
While viewers are digesting that, Milch layers in the bigger drama at hand: Hoffman’s character, Chester “Ace” Bernstein is just getting out of prison (picked up by his driver and confidante Gus, played by Farina) after serving three years – taking the fall for a family member and knowing that it was somehow set up by his former partner (Gambon) and associates. Luck let’s the master plan of revenge Ace is planning unfold slowly and with its murkier elements. Ace – and by extension Milch – is setting the hook slowly and with malice, but that storyline always mixes well with the machinations at the track.
What Luck excels at is the desperation of the fast buck, how small time players try insatiably to make it big, while big-time players seek to add to their fortunes. But nothing on television has captured this lifestyle, which makes the series unique. You can see the contrasting ambition of Escalante and Smith, the two trainers. There’s greed and disdain all over Escalante while Nolte’s character is all about the love of the horse and the magnificent capabilities of an animal that size. The jockey’s life is also well represented, particularly by Gary Stevens, the famed jockey (and multiple Kentucky Derby winner) turned actor (Seabiscuit), who plays Ronnie, the broken-down, addicted jockey at the end of his run.
Like a lot of HBO series, Luck will require patience. It’s telling a dense story with nuanced characters and it doesn’t feel the need to rush in, like a network series, and hammer home the main themes. But each episode is more enriching, more engrossing than the last and there’s Hoffman’s superb turn at the forefront, even though his story unfolds with the least rush. Luck is a smart and ambitious series that looks to truly pay off in the home stretch.
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