February 6, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem


A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.

Previously… on LUCK:  A variety of denizens orbit around the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles.  Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), a big-time gambler newly released from prison, has a scheme to supplement the track’s revenues with a full-fledged casino.  Also, with the in-name-only help of his driver Gus (Dennis Farina), he owns an expensive, promising horse trained by the somewhat shady Turo Escalante (John Ortiz).  4 degenerate gamblers (Jason Gedrick, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart and Ritchie Coster) somehow manage to win a multi-million dollar Pick 6 bet.   Various jockeys like Rosie (Kerry Condon), and agents like Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) maneuver for the most likely winners.  Meanwhile, Walter Smith (Nick Nolte), whose mysterious horse may be most talented of all, ruminates on the past.

Episode 2:  As a writer-producer, David Milch is not your friend.  He doesn’t particularly care whether you like his characters or even understand what they’re doing.  The second episode of Luck, with a script credited to John R. Perrotta and direction by Terry George, is if anything less audience-friendly than its pilot.  Instead of the somewhat fun plot engine of the Pick 6 bet, the centerpiece of Episode 2 is an exhaustive demonstration of the exact process by which a horse’s ownership can be “claimed” in a low-level race.  (One of the degenerate gamblers has the brainstorm of using part of his winnings to claim the horse that clinched them the Pick 6.)  It’s arcane and somewhat fascinating, but not particularly dramatic, particularly since as a plot line it ends up not going anywhere.  Another of the gamblers is beaten half to death while taking part in the least erotic three-way every committed to film.  Another, with predictable self-destructiveness, starts to methodically throw away his winnings at the poker table.  

As with the pilot, Luck has a great deal of dense incident, but not much story.  At the very end of the episode, we do learn that Ace’s casino plan is actually the labyrinthine start of his plot to get revenge on the former colleague (whom we haven’t yet seen) responsible for Ace having to going to prison for his ex-pal’s cocaine (otherwise Ace’s grandson would have taken the fall).  For reasons less clear, Ace is also aiming at the other investors in the casino project, all of whom are identified by Ace and Gus as “cocksuckers.”  And Smith reveals the tragic fate of his horse’s sire, which presumably explains why he’s so passionately bound to the young horse.

Luck goes out of its way to be obscure and elliptical and, it often seems, to provide the bare minimum of human interest in its narrative.  The same was sometimes true of Milch’s classic Deadwood, but that show had Ian McShane’s and Timothy Olyphant’s charismatic antagonists at its center (and McShane’s spectacular orations of profanity), plus a fair amount of sex and violence for entertainment value.  Luck continues to have dazzling race sequences; beyond that, even Hoffman’s performance is skilled, but utterly clenched.  The show is off-putting even in small ways:  when Ortiz speaks as Escalante, the combination of the thick Peruvian accent he’s chosen to use and the jargon of his dialogue literally requires Closed Captioning to be comprehended.  (Nolte, who mutters into his beard like it’s a pillow, isn’t much easier to understand.)
So far, Luck is compelling without being in any way involving.  And the truth is that neither its quality nor its ratings performance this season matter much, since HBO gave it an instant renewal after its pilot aired.  Smart money says that the show eventually finds its feet and becomes more effective in later episodes, but with each episode that goes by, that seems like more of a longshot.  

Original Verdict:  Potential DVR Alert
Pilot + 1:  Odds Are Mounting Against It

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."