First, a caveat: This isn’t an official review just yet. I like to have a chance to watch HBO—and other cable—stuff a few times before coming down on one side or another. And since HBO didn’t send out screeners of Luck, this is pretty much just a quick first impression, one that could change in either direction. Especially since the show won’t begin actually airing until January 29, I’m mostly throwing this space up for all of us to hash over the show and see what we thought of it. My thoughts may revise one way or the other after seeing additional episodes, something I’ll get into more when I do another review closer to the actual première. (The grade’s provisional, too, though I have a hard time seeing my opinion shifting too far on this one.)
That said, what did I think? I thought this was the best pilot I’ve seen this TV season, by a fair degree. It’s got the typical HBO pilot thing where it’s less an episode of television than the first hour of a long movie or the first chapter of a book. But I was surprised at how readily I was drawn into the conflicts, characters, and horse-racing world of the show. I’ve always been a fan of David Milch, stretching all the way back to his work on Hill Street Blues, and his Deadwood is the best TV series I’ve ever seen. But his last series, John From Cincinnati, featured some strong material but eventually crumbled under its own weight. (I like the first six episodes just fine, but after that, things head off the rails fairly quickly.) I’m also a fan of the work of pilot director Michael Mann, though he, too, has been guilty of his number of misfires. And the cast, of course, is more or less stellar, from the big stars—Dustin Hoffman! Nick Nolte!—to the folks who’ve been bouncing around television for a while and are getting their big shot with this one.
So, yes, I’m predisposed to like this show. But I was expecting to find the pilot something of a slog, and after parsing out some of what was going on (which, admittedly, took a while), I was engrossed in what was happening. The horse race sequences provide natural adrenaline boosts to the story any time it’s in danger of becoming indulgent, and the world Milch and Mann have built around the track is already a fascinating place, filled with interesting people. This pilot is much more conventional than the pilot for John or even the pilot for Deadwood (though no one would ever call it conventional by most standards), and Milch is careful to lay out a rough character hierarchy, letting you know who’s important both through how they’re treated by other people and by who’s been cast in those roles, as well as a rough story for the episode, in which a bunch of self-described degenerate gamblers win the big prize.
So, yes, I loved it. Here are some things to watch out for going forward.
Milch is still doing the “one day equals one episode” thing. This is something Milch has been fond of going on several years now, but it reached its height on Deadwood, where whole seasons would go by over the course of just under two weeks. Beginning in the morning and ending in the evening shouldn’t work as well as it does, but in Milch’s hands, it becomes a kind of rhythm you can look forward to in each show. We meet the characters as they go through their morning rituals. We leave them at the end of a hard day at the track, with Dustin Hoffman’s Ace telling Dennis Farina’s Gus that Gus “doesn’t know his own depth.” (This closing scene is a beautiful one, particularly Mann’s choice to shoot several moments directly from Ace’s point of view, with his feet extending before the camera.)
I’m going to need to learn a lot more about gambling if I’m going to cover this one. Fortunately, the “pick six” stuff isn’t as impenetrable as it seems at first, when our four gambler friends are talking over numbers of horses like they’re a secret code or the numbers from Lost or something. But there’s still a lot of gambling intrigue going on here, and the show has a refreshing confidence about tossing the audience in without a primer. You’re going to catch up or you’re not.
Milch still enjoys having his Greek chorus figures. Milch is always fond of characters who hang back and comment on the action or who have adventures that run parallel to the plot in strange ways. Think, for instance, of the guys who hung out at the hotel in John From Cincinnati or E.B. Farnum and everybody at his hotel in Deadwood (though Farnum also fulfilled a more traditional “fool” role). Here, the gamblers are both setting up for what I assume will be a Treasure Of The Sierra Madre-style battle but also to comment on the action as it floats by them. The scenes where they’re squabbling and talking over each other might have been my favorites in the episode.
Though he doesn’t get a lot to do, Hoffman is more engaged than he’s been in years as Ace. Look, again, at that final conversation, or the scene where he rages about how he’s been treated. Since Hoffman likes lots of preparation time and Milch has been known to rewrite everything on the fly, sometimes right before filming, it was easy to fear that this partnership would be a disaster. Based on the pilot, at least, that doesn’t seem like something that happened. Hoffman stalks his way through the show’s California setting like the alpha shark, just waiting to find his way back to the top. He’s also wildly funny, as when he asks Gus if the big-nutted goat was bow-legged. (Hoffman and Farina are playing wily smart guy and naïve innocent, which should feel old, but the two do a wonderful job of it.)
Mann’s created a great visual style that hearkens back to his 1980s TV work. Miami Vice was unfairly characterized as a show that was all style, no substance, but in its prime, it was one of the best dramas of the ’80s, a tightly shot and constructed noir that turned South Florida into something out of a horror film. Luck offers some of the same high-gloss visuals in service of a deeper story than what ’80s TV was capable of. In particular, I love the shots of the horses in the early morning, steam rising off their sweaty flanks, and the many, many close-ups of eyes, both horse and human. Mann’s camera is responsible for making the horses characters, and he does a smashing job of it.
The parts when the horses are running are the best. Milch’s work always excels when he captures simple human pleasure, the feeling of happiness we get when something good happens or when we’re engaged in something we love. The surfing sequences were often the best thing about John From Cincinnati, and the horse-riding sequences are the best things here. It’s easy to see why these people are so drawn to this world. It’s not just the money (though that’s a big part). It’s not just the excitement (though that’s a big part, too). It’s the fact that these are beautiful, powerful animals, and getting drawn into a world where they race toward daylight is almost too easy to do. Similarly, the saddest moment in the pilot is when a horse snaps its leg and has to be put down. Mann treats the moment almost as if a human were dying, focusing on the eye as the light goes out of it. I don’t know how Mann shot the horse-racing sequences—it seems like this would be very difficult to stage—but they’re viscerally exciting, and they fully convey the thrill of being atop a powerful animal, speeding along.
There are a lot of accents to parse through on this show. Escalante’s, in particular, is hard to figure out at first, though I caught on pretty quickly. Fortunately, the show jokes about this fairly early on.
This is very much a show about dudes. Jill Hennessy is here as a veterinarian, and there’s a young Irish female jockey, too, but this is very much a show about grizzled old men, trying to hold on to what they had at one time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Milch writes such vivid female characters that I hope this is only a temporary thing.
Still, like all Milch and Mann projects, this is a character actor’s dream. Look no further than the fact that Richard Kind is cast as a slimy-agent type to see that, yeah, this is going to be a show that finds room for as many fun characters actors as it possibly can.
That’s all for now. We’ll do a more traditional review once the show actually debuts. We’ll see you all in January.