March 27, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Last night, of course, was not intended to be the end of LUCK.  The enormously high-profile show, created by David Milch and with production supervised by pilot director Michael Mann, and fearuring a cast headed by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, had already been renewed for a second season, with one of those instant renewals that paycable networks like to throw around (Magic City has already been renewed by Starz even though it doesn’t have its official premiere for almost a month).  The first episode of Season 2 had been shot.  Then, during production of the 2d episode, and for the third time since the series had begun production, a horse involved with Luck died (in this case, falling down on her way back to her stable in such a way that she hit her head).  The following day HBO abruptly canceled the show, and we’ll probably never know what part of that decision was based on sincere concern for the safety of the horses, what part worry about the negative publicity being brought to bear by PETA (which accused the production of using sick and drugged animals), and what part the extremely low ratings that had been garnered by the expensive series all along.
In any case, we’ve seen the last of Luck.  

The series finale was its best, most entertaining episode by far, although it didn’t solve any of the problems that had haunted the series from the start.  Written by Eric Roth, himself no mere staff writer–an Oscar winner for Forrest Gump and screenwriter of films like The Insider, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close–and directed by Mimi Leder, the episode featured 2 thrilling race sequences and an intensely effective thriller storyline that set it apart from the 8 hours that had come before.
And yet when it was over, I still couldn’t have told you what Hoffman’s character of Ace Bernstein had been doing with the Indian tribe casinos over multiple episodes, or whether he actually did or didn’t want to open a casino in conjunction with the racetrack, or what (if anything) he intended to make of his acquaintance with Joan Allen’s character, or whether (or how) he’d planned to doublecross his nemesis Smythe (Michael Gambon) all along.  Milch’s elliptical style of storytelling (carried out by himself or his colleagues) made the show’s central narrative arc a cipher.  Nor was Hoffman perfectly suited for the role.  Dustin Hoffman is one of the great actors of his generation, but his strength isn’t imperturbable silence.  His most famous roles, from The Graduate to Midnight Cowboy, Rain Man to Tootsie to Kramer Versus Kramer, are men who don’t keep their thoughts to themselves.  Often, when watching Luck, it felt as though Hoffman was trying to give a DeNiro performance, the kind he’d delivered in Heat (for Michael Mann) or The Deer Hunter in which his recessiveness was like a transparent mask barely concealing every thought flickering through his mind.  The fact that DeNiro could better give this kind of performance than Hoffman is no slight to the latter (can you really imagine DeNiro pulling off Tootsie?), but it cost Luck.  
Similarly, while Nick Nolte’s Walter Smith was a warmer and more enjoyable character to watch than Ace, he was almost entirely undeveloped.  Smith was barely in last night’s finale before the last few minutes, and as usual he muttered wise truths about the nature of horseracing into his beard and hardly interacted with anyone else.  (Dramatically, it was a bad idea to separate Smith from the female jockey played by Kerry Condon–she was the only character in the show who seemed to draw him out of himself a little bit.)
The part of Luck that had been best from the start–the affectionately drawn degenerate gamblers played by Kevin Dunn, Jason Gedrick, Ian Hart and Ritchie Coster–continued that way to the end.  Milch and his colleagues blessed the quartet with more winnings in the finale (although Dunn dourly counted the hours until they would inevitably lose it all), and their sadsack chemistry remained intact.  I’ll miss seeing them next season in their rented house with a jacuzzi.  
The character who most succeeded in growing over the course of Luck‘s 9 hours was Turo Escalante (John Ortiz).  For one thing, either Ortiz started speaking more clearly or the ears adjusted, because Escalante started becoming more comprehensible.  As did his character, who was actually allowed to deepen a bit through his relationship with veterinarian Jo (Jill Hennessy).  
Luck went out with the kind of propulsive excitement it had lacked before, thanks to the drama of the episode’s races, in which first the degenerates’ horse had his big day, then Hoffman’s horse faced Nolte’s (spoiler alert:  Hoffman’s won), and to the story of Smythe trying to intimidate and/or assassinate Ace (including a dynamite violent scene for Dennis Farina’s Gus in a restaurant restroom).  But Luck, as it were, broke down before reaching the finish line, and ended up, in every sense of the phrase, out of the money.

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."