TV Review: “Luck”

Written by Television, TV Reviews

A review of the debut of HBO’s new drama, Luck.

The only truly important parts of a story are perspective and delivery. Everything else is window dressing. That’s why you should stick with Luck, HBO’s latest log on its decade-plus bonfire of sterling original programming. Yes, stick with it even if the series premiere left you feeling lost for all the byzantine horse race jargon, stacked cast, jumbled motivations and slow pacing. All the trappings of the high stakes horse track business and the shady dealings behind the scenes… all just window dressing.

The reasons to stay are legion. The cast is chief among them. Dustin Hoffman headlines as “Ace” Bernstein, a gaming industry businessman who starts off the pilot just getting out of a three-year stretch in prison for an as-yet-to-be-named crime. His interactions with old friends and associates suggest it has something to do with, what else, fixing the odds. Ace isn’t front and center for the pilot, though. He skirts the margins, never even existing outside a two-shot despite projecting an unnerving mix of deep isolation and seething rage. He finally explodes during a meeting with another crooked casino type who accuses him of turning informant because Ace insists on keeping a tape recorder handy as a crutch for his failing memory. There’s no doubt that bodies are going to start piling up as the season progresses, just as there’s no doubt Ace will be responsible for his fair share of them.

Ace’s new, semi-criminal enterprise, which includes an uncharacteristically sheepish Dennis Farina as Ace’s driver-turned-legitimate-front for operations, involves buying up an old, tattered horse race track and using some legal loopholes to open a full casino inside. There are, naturally, competing interests and potential villains in the offing, but all that drama is waiting in the wings without poking around in the pilot.

The majority of Luck‘s debut is about setting the mood. Most of the hour takes place at the sun-drenched race track where Ace’s old crew still run their stable of thoroughbreds. We’ve got John Ortiz as the gruff, aphorism-challenged stablemaster Escalante, Richard Kind as an extremely high-strung jockey agent, Tom Payne and Kerry Condon as a pair of young jockeys with fun accents (Cajun and Irish, respectively), and a fine collection of familiar faces (Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster and Jason Gedrick) playing a group of slovenly gamblers who win it big in the premiere despite acting like the desperate addicts they are. Nick Nolte is also poking around the edges as a horse enthusiast with an epic case of the frownies and a head full of unpleasant knowledge about the crooked business of the track game.

It doesn’t matter, at least for now, that the numbers, systems and character histories are all so intentionally opaque. Luck is part mood piece and part slow burn. All the pieces seem fit to come together gradually over the course of several seasons (even if creator David Milch has a history of not getting the chance to tease things out on HBO). In the meantime, it’s best to ignore the steep learning curve and trust that the excellent atmosphere will carry us through to comprehension by osmosis. It’s a good sign that a subplot concerning the bowel movements of a horse was a riveting as that could possibly be. Again, it’s all in the delivery. Hell, I have no idea what happened in most of the premiere and it’s still more accessible than John From Cincinnati, so that’s a start.