“What’s fascinating about David’s screenplay with all these different groups and stories, people’s whole life histories and ambitions — there are so many of them. And to not have preludes, not have contexts, to just parachute into these lives…The challenge is, how do you evoke that in ways that the viewer doesn’t need Dramamine after 20 minutes?” said Michael Mann in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. This quote illustrates one of the fundamental frustrations in watching “Luck,” the new horse-racing-world drama on HBO.
Birthed by Michael Mann and David Milch (“Deadwood,” “NYPD Blue“), their creative clashes during the production are no secret, leading to a sharp line being drawn in terms of creative duties (nicely outlined by The Atlantic) that essentially saw Milch have total control on the scripts, while Mann oversaw everything on set (reportedly including a three-ring binder filled — with detailed instructions on everything from lighting to camera angles — on how to shoot the show for the directors of each episode). The result is a series that is somewhat stilted, enegertically shot, but often lethargically paced, dropping the viewer into a world they will have to adapt to and learn about quickly.
Just how much education a viewer will have to cram in is highlighted by the five-page glossary of horse racing terms we received in our press kit for the show — but unfortuantely, audiences won’t have the luxury of a similar reference guide. While HBO is no stranger to densely conceived, wholly organic and integrated worlds, their best shows (“The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Treme“) don’t lean on authenticity at the expense of narrative momentum or understanding. With an almost too large and sprawling ensemble, with at least six story strands vying for attention, “Luck” at times feels overstuffed, a problem compounded by Milch’s insistence on leaving too much for the viewer to piece together.
The centerpiece of the show is supposed to be Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), freshly released after a stretch in jail, living in a posh penthouse in a hotel and setting into motion a grand plan (and perhaps a long con) with his eye on the race track. Yet, though the nine episodes, Ace never builds into an iconic character in the vein of Stringer Bell, Nucky Thompson or Tony Soprano because we’re too busy ping-ponging around with the rest of the cast. Up in the stands are a quartet of racing junkies (who at times have their own sub-subplots): the wheelchair-bound, acerbic Marcus (Kevin Dunn); Jerry (Jason Gedrick), who picks the winners despite being a loser at the poker table; the sweet-hearted Renzo (Ritchie Coster); and the flashy, ambitious Lonnie (Ian Hart). Meanwhile, down in the stables there’s the Peruvian trainer Escalante (John Ortiz) whose love of horses is only matched by disregard for everyone else, including the veterinarian Jo (Jill Hennessy) with whom he has a testy relationship. Meanwhile, there’s also Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) another trainer and fading legend, whose latest big hope is also tied to a dark, painful memory.
But wait — that’s not all. There’s the stuttering, down-on-his-luck jockey agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind); rising jockey Leon (Tom Payne); veteran rider Ronnie (played by real racer Gary Stevens) and sprightly up-and-comer Rosie (Kerry Condon). And that’s forgetting Ace’s bodyguard, driver and right hand man Gus (Dennis Farina) not to mention four more characters that we’re introduced to later on. It’s a helluva lot to juggle, and Milch does himself a disservice with scripts that, at least early on, are more obtuse than they need be, that don’t engender curiosity but confusion about intentions and motivations for many of the key characters.
But stick with it. If the season’s first two episodes are a bit disorienting, by the middle stretch, “Luck” begins to take firm shape, picking up speed (and comprehensibility) with many of the stories beginning to crystallize into something sharp and compelling. Among the most revealing and moving is, surprisingly, the arc surrounding Joey, whose initial one-dimensionality is quickly transformed into a much richer portrait. Kind has always been one of the best character actors out there, and here again he asserts himself as a continually underrated talent. Gus also becomes a bigger presence with Farina once again reminding us why he’s so great. Hoffman’s tightly wound and occasionally explosive Ace begins to open up a little, but perhaps not as much as we’d like (though the actor’s performance, unsurprisingly, is superb), while Walter is another great part for Nolte, who uses his grizzled voice and body to tremendous effect.
For much of this first season, the brilliance only comes through in flashes, but when it does, the promise of the show and what it could be is hard to ignore. Among the best elements are the horses and races themselves, the former beautifully filmed in all their majestry and beauty, and the latter delivered in genuinely electric and pulse-pounding sequences, expertly shot and edited, keeping you in the thick of the action that each time feels fresh and vital (pretty much every episode features a race and it never gets dull). And as the storylines begin to firm up to match the direction and acting when the season enters its final stretch, “Luck” begins to look like it could be one of the great HBO shows. The overriding theme of luck — of what you do when you have it, when you don’t and how to make it your own — is one that touches each character in fascinating ways, and Milch uses that undercurrent often to strong effect.
However, there are shortcomings “Luck” will have to overcome if the series is to improve in season two. Perhaps speaking to the lack of clarity in the scripts, there is a shockingly lazy over-reliance on the use of Sigur Ros (featured in a third of the episodes) to sell key emotional moments, and it feels like a slapdash solution to structural problems that need to have been addressed earlier. (That’s not to mention that the use of Massive Attack‘s “Splitting The Atom” for the theme song feels completely wrong for the show). However, it’s the women in “Luck” that get the shortest shrift. Rosie and Jo are given little to do and their respective journeys largely rely on the caprices of the men around them, while a couple of secondary female characters later on do little to add to a tapestry that is already overstitched (a leaner cast of characters would work wonders).
For Mann and Milch, they have the luxury of being on HBO, which allows the show to find an audience and build word of mouth, unlike regular network programming which lives and dies at the whims of weekly ratings. But whether “Luck” can draw viewers will be interesting to see, as the biggest hurdle to overcome will be those first two episodes, which are arguably the weakest of the nine. And while the feeling left at the end of nine hours or so is that “Luck” has merely been prologue so far, the stage is set for a second season that could be a powerhouse. But it will require Milch and Mann finding a middle ground creatively (and it would be nice if Milch let go of his more marble-mouthed, ornate dialogue and replaced it with lines that real people might actually say) and also for audiences to want to see what happens to Ace and Walter next (we certainly do). So while the odds on “Luck” might not be the greatest, it’s still worth taking a bet. [B-]
“Luck” airs Sundays at 9 PM on HBO.