[Spoilers follow] “Luck” is a world that David Milch knows well. His self-described addiction to the track is legendary, both as a prodigious better and an owner. He once had a horse headed for the Derby who, like a horse in the pilot, broke down (in life, after the Louisville plane tickets had been booked). If the characters in “Deadwood” were based on historical figures, those in “Luck” are drawn from life. (Indeed, the regulars even include Gary Stevens as a former jockey; you can’t get closer to reality than that.)
The track is one of our most democratic institutions, and Milch gets this part absolutely right. So far, at least, he’s entirely uninterested in aristocratic owners. There are no Phipps or Saudis here. Of the two owners in the series, one is ex-con Dustin Hoffman who needs Dennis Farina to serve as his front while the other is a former trainer played by Nick Nolte.
The people in this show are those who make and lose their living at the track: the trainers, the riders, the agents, vets, and, most of all, a quartet of low-life gamblers (Jason Gedric, Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, and Ian Hart).
There’s a weird sort of inverse pyramid to the pilot: those gamblers are the most vibrant characters in the show and their triumph is nearly as hollow as the victory at the end of Robert Altman’s “California Split,” one of the great gambling films with the saddest winner in all gambling fiction.
That’s the good news. The higher up the ladder you go, the less interesting the stories become. There’s real emotion in the story of novice jockey Leon (Tom Payne) who faces the death of his mount, and some nice by-play between him and exercise rider Kerry Condon as well as agent Richard Kind.
But what trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) is after remains a mystery, as does whatever the story is behind Nick Nolte’s Walter Smith. (Nolte’s presence, however, is as authoritative as ever.)
The show is weakest when it gets to Hoffman and Farina. We see Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein released from jail. We see the deference with which Farina’s Gus Demitrou treats him. But what drives Hoffman’s character is something that, at least at this point, is entirely a secret. Right now, Bernstein is a guy with a backstory but no story.
In modern-day television, of course, that may be a strategy rather than a deficiency. HBO has shot the entire season; they’re not going to pull the plug. Presumably, Bernstein may yet move to the show’s center.
Or, perhaps, not. Pairing the verbal Milch with the visual Michael Mann is understandable. It worked on “Deadwood” when Walter Hill directed the pilot. But Hill was in and out, and “Deadwood” was Milch’s show.
Mann, who ran “Miami Vice,” has an ongoing hand in this series. I’ve heard from more than one source that he took Milch’s scripts and did not allow him to rewrite on the set.
Let’s hope that that decision will not be fatal. Milch is an adrenaline junkie and, while winning him no friends, that compulsive, last-minute, chaos-producing re-writing often results in his best work.
Right now, “Luck” has massive amounts of verisimilitude but only occasionally comes to life. Check out the trailer below: