I’ve tumbled hard for David Milch’s horse racing drama “Luck.” However, watching last night’s episode, it’s not hard to understand why the ratings have been less than stellar despite the prestige cast and crew. “Luck” doesn’t really unfold along the lines of typical serialized storytelling, but neither it is like one large narrative that’s been chopped into shorter bits. To put it another way — while ambitious TV shows often get compared to novels, “Luck” is more like a collection of connected short stories.
Dustin Hoffman’s gangster, Chester “Ace” Bernstein, comes across as the main character by virtue of Hoffman’s fame, and because the start of the show coincides with his release from prison, and because he has the closest thing to plotty motivation: he wants revenge on the men he blames for sending him away. But six episodes in, he’s just getting the ball rolling on this plan as his main antagonist and former business partner Mike (Michael Gambon) finally makes his appearance. The possibility of his romance with a woman (Joan Allen) running a nonprofit foundation receives at least much attention on screen.
The other threads are just as character-driven and unhurried — four railbirds win big and go in together on their own horse; a brilliant, assholish trainer acts brilliant and assholish; two young jockeys struggle to make their way while an established one struggles with addictions; elderly trainer and owner Walter Smith (played by a gloriously weary Nick Nolte) begins racing a colt with great promise. Servings of plot are doled out sparingly, like the arrival of a member of the old Kentucky family for which Walter used to work at the end of last night’s installment, carrying with him the nonspecific promise of trouble.
Instead, “Luck” plays out like a place you visit, which is what the series is really about — it’s not a revenge story, or one of amateur underdogs making it big in a business on which they used to just bet. It’s a portrait of the complex and slightly shady ecosystem of the racetrack, one that bubbles along in different strata, from the higher-ups jostling to bring casino gambling to the track to the fading jockey’s agent trying to hold on to his two clients.
There are echoes between what happens to different characters — the bad omens that started off last night’s episode, from an enigmatic message of “Wait to Go Greek” on a cake (“No icing error, this,” Dennis Farina’s Gus mutters Mamet-esquely) to the tremor that sends panicked owners checking in on their expensive equines. But the episodes are so far also marked by a sense of sameness, in that progress is slow and hard work, there’s backsliding into bad habits, mistakes are made, and ups and downs occur due to the whims of fortune.
You have to want to spend time with these characters as their flounder forward, and fortunately “Luck” has great fondness and empathy for them in all of their dysfunction — like Kevin Dunn’s Marcus, whose prickliness hides an aching concern for his friend’s gambling addiction, or Ace, who berates Gus for waiting for him all night instead of going home to sleep.
It’s a warmth that will certainly serve the show better when the season can be consumed in great gulps rather than doled out over the weeks, and when the lack of narrative drive between episodes won’t seem as noticeable next to the enjoyment that can be taken in these characters as they fret over showing how much they care. It’s a valuable property, even if it’s worth is destined to shine through more on other platforms. With HBO already committed to a second season, there’s time for audiences to come around to it through different means.
“Luck” airs Sundays at 9pm.