Ace: Generally, how’d he look?
Gus: What do I know, Ace? All four of his legs reach the ground.
That exchange, between two of the leads on the new HBO series Luck, concerns Pint of Plain, the race horse that Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) owns by way of his driver and bodyguard Gus Demetriou (Dennis Farina). Gus is fronting for Ace, who’s recently been released from prison and can’t legally own a horse until he’s off parole. But he knows as much about horse racing as most viewers probably do—which is to say, not much. Those expecting to get a primer on the sport will be disappointed by Luck’s first episode, written by creator David Milch (Deadwood) and directed by his co-executive producer, Michael Mann. But that’s not a criticism; what Milch and Mann have always been most effective at is getting to the substance of a specific subculture through stylistic means.
Mann achieves this by creating an atmosphere thick with golden promise. In Luck, the majestic thoroughbreds shine as they stand backlit by the sun. Mann also relies on the same reliable standby (music-driven visuals) that characterized the two TV shows he’s best known for, Miami Vice and the pioneering serial Crime Story. Like that gritty period piece, Luck revolves around multiple protagonists of dubious reputation. But there’s an infectious snappiness to the series that comes through the sharpest during its race sequences. Shot in the high-definition video Mann has preferred in recent years, one often sees the race from the perspective of a jockey. In this case, that’s apprentice Leon (Tom Payne), riding Mon Gateau in the show’s pivotal fourth race. Luck thrives in sequences such as this one, whenever the sound of the galloping horses running the main dirt track of the gorgeous Santa Anita Park dictates the rhythm of the intercutting between the race, the outer rail (where you can usually find stammering jockey’s agent Joey Rathburn, played by Richard Kind, and trainer-turned-owner Walter Smith, played by Nick Nolte), and the grandstand, populated by a sleazy bunch of gamblers who hit it big in this episode: the sickly Marcus (Kevin Dunn), poker-addicted Jerry (Jason Gedrick), slow-witted Renzo (Ritchie Coster), and naïve Lonnie (Ian Hart).
This motley crew serves as Luck’s Greek chorus, a mouthpiece for Milch, the same way Tom Nuttall and his bar’s patrons were on Deadwood or Medavoy and the other second-string cops of New York’s 15th Precinct were on NYPD Blue. In each of those shows, Milch used language to illustrate character, codes of behavior, and a specific milieu. If some of the more esoteric terms used throughout Luck fly over viewers’ heads, it’s best to study how the show’s “railbirds” (Marcus and Jerry’s gang) use slang in order to start picking it up. If Deadwood serves as any indication, viewers will have absorbed Luck’s arcane terminology by season’s end (the first season is only slated to last nine episodes).
The show’s greatest mystery surrounds Ace and Gus, whose “horsing around” is part of a grand scheme set in motion as a means to get revenge on those who let Ace take the fall and go to prison. Hoffman plays Ace with an attractive mix of grandfatherly kindness and clenched-jawed menace, while Gus is all charm on the surface so far. This (minus the charm) might remind fans of Deadwood of its charismatic villain/antihero, Swearengen, and his hired gun, Dan Dority. But Milch recently admitted that he modeled Ace on his father, a doctor who had a love/hate relationship with the horse track. This would probably put Ace closer to another beloved Milch antihero, NYPD Blue’s alcoholic cop Andy Sipowicz, a character also based on Milch’s dad. And in that case, it signals a redemptive arc for Ace that I’m very interested in seeing play out.
The first episode of Luck is only an introduction setting up the dense world of the racetrack. I haven’t even gotten to the often unintelligible Peruvian horse trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), his veterinarian, Jo (Jill Hennessy), or a couple of jockeys played by Kerry Condon and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. That’s my way of saying don’t worry if you don’t immediately follow everything going on in the pilot. The world depicted here is much clearer than the surf milieu from Milch’s John in Cincinnati, even the Old West depicted in Deadwood. I’m confident Luck will become even clearer over the next couple of months as viewers get an opportunity to burrow deeper into the series.
• The opening credits’ theme song is Massive Attack’s “Splitting the Atom.”
• This is a reunion for Farina and Mann. Farina played Mike Torello, the lead in Crime Story, and got his start in Mann’s Thief (1981).
• Ortiz and Mann have also worked together before. The actor is best known for his role as Jose Yero, the villain in Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice.
• Ditto for Hoffman and Mann. Though the actor has never played onscreen for the filmmaker, Mann worked extensively with Hoffman in the ’70s developing the character of Max Dembo for 1978’s Straight Time.
• Don’t understand how Marcus and Jerry’s crew won upward of $2.8 million? Jerry picked six consecutive race winners (races three to eight) on the same ticket. The crucial bet that set the crew apart from other potential winners was Jerry’s very risky selection of a long shot—Escalante’s horse, Mon Gateau—as the only winner in the fourth race (“singling” the horse). With no other picks for that race, had Mon Gateau not won the race, they would have blown a huge jackpot.
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