A subsidiary character was killed at the end of episode seven of “Luck,” and with his death and subsequent dumping into the ocean at the opening of the following episode, the show came roaring to life.
And then, less than two weeks before this episode aired, the real-life death of a horse sent the show to a quick and untimely death.
The insertion of the crime drama into the show raised the awful question as to whether network executives are right. Do we really worry about “stakes,” about “life and death?” Are we stuck with law, medicine, and death-dealing fantasy as our only genres? Dick Francis always put a mystery in his racetrack novels. Did David Milch need to do the same?
(The show’s cancellation will doubtless raise other questions about executive decisions; given that I can only speculate, I’ll leave that to others.)
Stripped of the pure quality of the writing and directing of those last two shows (the eighth by John R. Perrotta & Jay Hovdey, directed by Allen Coulter; the finale by co-exec Eric Roth, directed by Mimi Leder), what we have is material far more familiar then the racetrack stories that led up to here: a gangster going out of control, a rival not willing to let things go, an assassination attempt.
This is pure genre story-telling, albeit of the highest order. The tension is palpable and contagious — suddenly the racetrack stories are more meaningful, as if by pure proximity they gained risk.
But as this new story progressed, it became clear that it wasn’t the genre elements that had given the series the lift it so desperately needed.
It was that this story finally put Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein and Dennis Farina’s Gus Demitriou at the show’s center, where they truly belong.
Hoffman and Farina’s connection to the track had been tenuous at best: Hoffman got out of prison in the pilot, had Farina front for him in buying a horse, and wanted to link the track with casino gambling.
But his life doesn’t depend on any of this, not the way Nick Nolte’s owner/trainer (another character who really flourishes in the season’s final episodes) did, nor any of the jockeys, trainers, vets, and gamblers.
What happened in the last two episodes is that Hoffman and Farina’s characters had something to do of consequence. Farina stopped being a chauffeur and started being a tough guy who could see what others cannot. We finally knew why Hoffman kept him around.
And Hoffman himself had moral choices to make of enormous consequence. It wasn’t his wealth or past that was driving him – it was his sense of obligation and will to stay in the game.
And that balance — that central placement of Hoffman, Farina, and Nolte at the show’s center — suddenly made things right.
“Luck” turned out to be one of those shows that needed its first season to find its voice. Sadly, just as it found it, it was gone, as surely as “Deadwood.” While I doubt that “Luck” will be mourned in the same way, these last two episodes make me very sad not to know where the show was going.