Previously, the network was home to his incredible, but truncated, western, Deadwood, as well as the misunderstood and similarly short-lived John From Cincinnati. The keywords there allude to the fact that both of Milch’s previous series were cancelled well before their time.
Perhaps ensuring Luck’s success, the ensemble drama comes with the kind of star-studded cast normally reserved for blockbuster films, but lately seems to be the norm for a HBO series. In addition – and to help bolster awareness – for a series that doesn’t actually start until January, HBO is looking to cash in early and hook viewers catching the Boardwalk Empire season 2 finale.
Luck begins with Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) being released from prison and into the car of his driver, Gus (Dennis Farina). On the drive, Ace and Gus quickly go over the vague details of Ace’s plan to extract vengeance on those for whom he served a three-year prison sentence. The plan somehow involves a horse Gus is serving as owner for, but other than connecting Ace to the rest of the characters dispersed throughout the horse track – and by extension the series – it’s unclear just where Ace is going with this.
Then, through the nearly incomprehensible horse track jargon, we are introduced to the rest of the cast.
First off, we meet cantankerous horse trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) and stammering agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind). Still at the stables we encounter Nick Nolte, who is known only as “The Old Man,” and who believes he may have found the horse that will be the next derby winner. While still having a knack for picking winners, or “peaches,” as he calls them, “The Old Man” seems to be on the losing end of some battle being fought in the recesses of his mind.
While horses, trainers and owners are great, what would a series set around a horse track be without some degenerate gamblers? Enter Jerry (Jason Gedrick) and his partner Marcus (Kevin Dunn, Transformers). Together, with their rumpled clothes and unshorn faces, Jerry and Marcus make a sympathetic pair for the audience to root for, but will ultimately provide the inevitable heartbreak that comes with those who cannot stay away from such action.
Luck features not only a bevy of great actors, but its pilot is also under the direction of acclaimed filmmaker Michael Mann. From the start, it’s clear that the pairing of Mann and Milch is a match made in television heaven.
Instead of swearing set to an iambic pentameter, Milch’s poetic expressiveness is used to breakdown the complex lingo of a subculture that many likely didn’t even know existed – while providing precious few clues as to where the story of Luck is headed. Though it is complicated and often puzzling, Milch’s writing has never pandered to its audience; he is known to be acutely aware to whom he’s writing and here is no different.
Meanwhile, Mann, who also serves as producer for the series, handles the deliberate pacing of the script by turning horse races and guys (literally) looking at numbers and dollar signs into an engaging spectacle. But like The Insider, Mann relies on the strength of his cast, pulling winning performances from actors new to his work and those with whom the director is familiar – namely, Ortiz (Miami Vice, Public Enemies) and Farina (Crime Story).
Familiarity aside, Hoffman and Nolte are obviously the big draw for this series, and so they are rightly treated as the enigmatic, if not curious, center of this world. Hoffman’s barely-contained rage and Nolte’s wistful ramblings act as disparate ends, bracketing the rest of the characters and (hopefully) making sense of where they all fit. If not, well, at least we get to see Hoffman and Nolte in a series on HBO.
After watching the pilot, however, it’s clear that slow-and-steady will win the race for Luck. While the episode had a lot of information to break down, and basic concepts like revenge, power and even love were explored briefly, there was little to go on, in terms of what to expect. This could be a detriment to the burgeoning series, or it could work in its favor – as audiences seek answers to the questions that arise from this introduction. On the other hand, audiences have displayed a fear of commitment to any series that takes a while to heat up – leaving Luck and Milch once more at the mercy (and hopefully the goodwill) of HBO.
Though the pilot was engaging, for those watching who may not be familiar with the world of horse racing, much of the episode was likely spent wondering what on earth was being said. As stated before, Milch doesn’t pander to the audience, but without a crib sheet or uncle with a gambling problem, much of Luck may have been lost on viewers.
This means that like Deadwood, Luck comes with a bit of a learning curve. However, in this era of On Demand entertainment, DVR and HBO Go, whatever audience this show is able to attract will have previous episodes at their disposal as a reference guide to help them speak the language.
Once more, HBO has proven itself adept at blurring the lines between film and television by inviting creators to tell a large story, from a multitude of perspectives, over the course of many hours. And from what it looks like, Luck is going to utilize all of them. However, with the promise of Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) and Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) joining the series, that certainly looks to be time well spent.
Luck officially begins its first season on January 29 @9pm on HBO.