December 13, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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LUCK – Sundays 9PM on HBO starting January 29 – Potential DVR Alert
The TV auteur David Milch got rich by co-creating (with Steven Bochco) NYPD Blue, but he’s probably most beloved for creating DeadwoodDeadwood, while never a giant hit–it ran only 36 episodes on HBO, and never had a proper ending–was a legendary feat of writing, a genuine creation that combined the bottom-up construction of a frontier town’s entire populace with spectacularly eloquent and profane dialogue that was almost Shakespearean in its scabrous, multi-layered beauty.  (AMC’s Hell On Wheels is an increasingly dull attempt to reconfigure something like the tone of Deadwood for a broader audience.)  With the new LUCK, which HBO previewed after the Boardwalk Empire season finale, prior to its regular run beginning January 29, Milch turns to a subject much closer to home (perhaps a bit too close):  a Los Angeles-area horseracing track and its denizens. 

It’s not exactly a secret that Milch is himself a devotee of the racing world, and his expertise is all over the Luck pilot.  Every detail feels right, from the strategies of self-described “degenerate gamblers” trying to nail a multi-million dollar Pick 6 wager, to the games played by trainers trying to keep the buzz down and the odds high on their horses, to the politics and legal considerations of horse ownership.  As in Deadwood, all levels of the track’s universe are covered with an almost obsessive degree of detail.  This devotion is matched by Milch’s partner (and sometime enemy combatant) on the project, director Michael Mann, a filmmaker himself famed for his insistence on absolute fidelity to accuracy.  With Mann behind the camera, the race sequences in Luck‘s pilot are as good as, if not better than, anything previously seen on film.  Mann had tiny cameras on the starting gate, the jockeys, the horses themselves, and who knows where else; the gung-ho immediacy of the editing places viewers into the vortex of a race, as it’s happening, with spectacular clarity.
There is a sense in which Luck, or at least its pilot, is like a show about Star Wars put together by sci-fi geeks.  It’s so immersed in its own knowledge and sometimes arcane perfectionism that there isn’t always room for mere viewers.  The Luck pilot avoids convention to the point of eccentricity.  Its theoretical main character and certainly the one played by its biggest star, Dustin Hoffman, is gambler Chester “Ace” Bernstein.  Ace is released from a 3-year prison term as the show begins, but he probably appears for no more than 10 minutes in the pilot, and apart from one scene with a past and possibly future colleague, he interacts almost exclusively with Gus (Dennis Farina), his driver and right hand.  Ace is forbidden to take part in track activities due to his criminal conviction, so he’s set up a cover story by which Gus appears to have “won” a fortune in Las Vegas, permitting him to “buy” a prime racehorse that’s actually owned by Ace. 
The horse is being trained by Escalante (John Ortiz), a canny schemer.  Escalante’s tricks are known well enough to the degenerate gambler group (Kevin Dunn, Jason Gedrick, Ian Hart, Richie Coster) that the smartest–but perhaps least responsible–among them (Gedrick) dares in their Pick 6 wager to bet only Escalante’s long-shot horse in one of the races.  Meanwhile, and for now almost completely separate from all this, is another unknown but wildly promising horse being nurtured toward his racing debut by an owner known only as The Old Man (Nick Nolte).
That name tells you another potential problem with Luck, and it’s one to which both Milch and Mann are prone:  intense self-seriousness.  (Lest we forget, Milch followed Deadwood with John From Cincinnati, one of the true WTF television series of our time.)  Nolte delivers elliptical, visionary speeches to and about the horse and his history, steeped in seen-em-come-and-seen-em-go wisdom.  Nolte also doesn’t meaningfully interact with anyone else in the pilot, and as great as Nolte is, a little of his isolated lyrical speechifying will go a long way.
More than most pilots, Luck‘s leaves a great deal unresolved about just what its series will be.  Rather than ingratiate itself as an ordinary pilot would, Luck stakes out its vibrant but in many ways obscure territory and invites viewers to stay or leave.  The show has superb skill, a marvelous cast (apart from those noted, Jill Hennessey, Michael Gambon, Joan Allen, and Richard Kind appear briefly or are promised in future episodes) and utter knowledge of its millieu.  The question is whether it will care to join all of those for a trifecta of captivating storytelling, or leave us to watch in frustration from the cheap seats.  That outcome will be known in a few weeks.  For now:  hold all tickets.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."