Hard ‘Luck’: Why HBO’s Horseracing Drama is Still Worth Seeking Out

Hard 'Luck': Why HBO's Horseracing Drama is Still Worth Seeking Out
Hard 'Luck': Why HBO's Horseracing Drama is Still Worth Seeking Out

Watching the outstanding season (and series) finale of “Luck,” which went out quietly on Sunday night while the country turned its attention to “Mad Men,” it was hard not wonder if the show would have found more of a following if the rest of it had been like its ending.

Written by Eric Roth and directed by Mimi Leder, the last episode unites the characters on the day of a derby race in which most had a stake, either by way of betting, riding, training or ownership. It features an underdog triumph, a murder, a departure, a medical scare, a photo finish and a naked girl rolling around in a bed of money — everything you’d want in a cable TV show for adults, with that phrase’s many implications.

But it wasn’t ratings that resulted in the cancellation of “Luck,” it was the unfortunate death of three horses during the show’s production. And “Luck,” while not opposed to sequences of reward and drama, is a show that loved and relied on quiet moments and the weight of what was being left unsaid.

It sometimes made for counterintuitive television that, as I speculated before, will play out better when it can be consumed in one or two sessions on DVD instead of being doled out over weeks. And the show’s still well worth seeking out, even if it’s not returning — the final moments served well enough to provide welcome closure for some while promising storms on the horizon for others. And there’s always trouble on the way in “Luck,” and not just of the sort the paranoid Marcus (Kevin Dunn) is always predicting — the extent to which the series takes its name to heart became increasingly clear as the season unfolded.

The show has the feel and texture of an unfiltered cigarette and a tumbler of Scotch, a cast of characters dominated by grizzled, guarded men with soft hearts who are worse for the wear but still ready to make a go of things, as bad or as good as those things might be. “Whatever complications, this is where we are, what we have to make our lives with,” Dustin Hoffman’s Chester Bernstein tells his estranged grandson, brought back into his life by his enemies as a potential target. “Hands are dealt, we got to see how we play them.”

Luck is, in the parlance of the show, about accepting how little is in your control. The slinky opening credits are filled with charms and tokens — horseshoe rings and neon four-leaf clovers, crosses and coins on chains — symbolizing the way in which people try to influence their fortunes, but also speaking to they’ve chosen or had chosen for them a life that depends on chance. Jerry (Jason Gedrick), for instance, is a brilliant handicapper of horses whose skills nab him and his friends — who name themselves Foray Stables — a small fortune and a chance to buy a horse of their own. But he’s a disaster at the poker tables, even though he can’t stay away from them. As his card-playing nemesis points out, he doesn’t bet by the numbers, he bets like he’s got to prove how lucky he is… and he most of the time, he isn’t.

So many of the characters in “Luck” are distinguished either by a great loss or by having nothing to begin with. The Foray railbirds have experienced so little success in their lives that to see them do well and figure out how to handle that has been one of the show’s great pleasures, as the four check into connecting rooms in a nearby motel that looks like it’s out of another era and flutter over the shoulder of their surly trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) like helicopter parents. Nick Nolte’s trainer Walter Smith, the most grizzled of them all, is still heartsick from the demise of the old Kentucky farm on which he used to work and the killing of the horse who sired Gettin’ Up Morning, the colt with great potential he’s been working with.

Escalante (I just can’t call him “Turo”) has scrabbled his way up from humble beginnings and is so tightly closed and seemingly uninterested in other people that one of his most lovely emotional moments came when in the finale when he asks Chester if he has any children. His girlfriend, or rather the woman he’s been sleeping with, Jo (Jill Hennessy) has gotten pregnant, and suddenly the possibility of having a family, of having a life, seems like something he’d want after all. (The show caps this moment by having him step back into a bucket of water and go back to bellowing in Spanish at his underling.)

And Chester, who starts off the show only aiming for revenge, with the help of his faithful driver and friend and, as the finale proves, stealthy tough guy Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), falls in love, with the track, with the horse he’s bought, with Claire Lachay (Joan Allen), who runs a nonprofit based on rehabilitating convicts by having them work with rescued thoroughbreds. It’s only by having things that you can feel the threat of losing them, and Chester’s old foe Michael (Michael Gambon), who’s escalated their feud, is there taunting him on the day of his big race, pointing out all the soft spots he’s developed.

“Luck” celebrates the calm center that people who’ve gotten used to loss can develop, a sort of zen state and due to that, it’s as gentle on and generous with their failures as their wins. Take Ronnie Jenkins, played by real-life jockey Gary Stevens, the experienced, older rider there to contrast the up-and-comers Rosie (Kerry Condon) and Leon (Tom Payne). Struggling with addictions and injuries (“I break this collarbone more than I get laid,” he resignedly tells a paramedic after a fall), he’s not reliable, but his fits of greatness and his times of weakness are treated with a level gaze. “That Jenkins fellow’s a maestro,” Rosie observes after seeing him race. “Yes he is,” Walter allows, “when the spirit moves. You understand?”

A little, but that will have to do. At nine episodes total, “Luck” doesn’t feel finished, but it’s not the type of show that ever would. Sometimes fortune favors you and sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to play the cards you’re dealt.

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