"Pilot" (again)

Luck reairs its pilot this evening at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO. The second episode airs next week at that time.

There’s a moment in almost every David Milch show where the plotting and character development and nuts and bolts of making a TV show simply float away and an immense feeling of the interconnectedness of the world Milch and his colleagues have built washes over you. It’s usually a moment that transcends, a moment of startling beauty that looks past the mundane and physical to something less tangible and more spiritual. Milch is as good as any cinematic artist at creating the feeling of something more than what we’re actually watching, the sense that when we start peeling back the layers, we’ll learn that everything is part of the same system, the same living being that we can’t perceive because we’re too limited in our scope. Milch, writer on Hill Street Blues, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, excels in the moments when the words fade out and the world is reduced to a bunch of people who all have the same loves and the same drives and find themselves united in a kind of grace.

Michael Mann, director of Heat and The Insider and Miami Vice, as well as the visual mastermind behind Miami Vice, the TV show, is also often good at this, but in a very different way. He’s good at boiling down the tactile and the sensual pleasure of things and making them seem all-encompassing and spiritual. It’s reductive to say that a Mann film (or television series) is “all” about looking at gorgeous, sleek images in the same way it’s reductive to say a Terrence Malick film is all about pretty pictures. What Mann wants to convey is the way that sensual pleasures can stand in for the kinds of spiritual ecstasy we’ve traded in for our modern ways. Driving a fast car or making love to a beautiful woman or standing in the city and watching a storm roll in can be as heady and powerful as getting lost in the spirit and finding your way toward God. Where Milch finds God in people, Mann finds him in surfaces.

This is why Luck, despite the repeated rumors that the two didn’t get along and an Atlantic article that purports to suggest the “rules” the show was constructed under, rules that would seem to be anathema to good television, works as well as it does. For all of the wonders of Milch’s dialogue and for all of the rigid technical precision of Mann’s direction, when the show breaks out into a horse race, it marries the best of both worlds in a way that barely needs words to work. There’s a race in the fourth episode of the series where characters that cut across the series’ surprisingly large world are united in ways they don’t quite understand by watching a magnificent animal run a magnificent race, and it brings out the feelings of transcendental majesty that inform both men’s work. Milch gives us the people in the stands, united into one consciousness by witnessing something so beautiful as to seem like a miracle. Mann gives us the miracle of feeling a powerful animal’s muscles ripple under you, of feeling like an insect clinging to a hurricane. The two unite, comment on each other, split apart, then dovetail again, all in ways that delight, even if the process of getting there was hell.

At this point, it’s all but understood that an HBO series will take a while to get going. Unlike any other network, HBO seems to be racing away from the episodic model—even the serialized shows on FX and AMC have clear, understood goals in each episode—in favor of something more like a miniseries or novel. The episodes stand in for chapters, and the series will take their time in setting up the characters and world, sometimes in ways that can leave less patient audience members wondering what’s happening on The Good Wife or Shameless at the moment. To be certain, there’s a great deal of that in Luck, particularly in the second and third episodes, which spend a lot of time clearing up who’s who and what’s going on for the benefit of viewers a bit confused by the pilot, which simply (and marvelously) throws those watching it into the deep end and expects us to keep up. Now, this is a David Milch show on HBO, so it’s not like the amount of exposition here is going to clear up every question you have, but there is plenty of table setting in the season’s first third.

But then, in “act two,” as it were, the series begins to overcome some of those tendencies and starts to soar. All of the care that’s gone into laying out the many, many characters who hang out around the central setting of the Santa Anita racetrack (and a nearby hotel and casino) begins to pay off, and the race sequences—despite often featuring many of the same horses—are always thrilling. Like all Milch series, Luck is obsessed with headier concerns than “Who will win the race?” or “What will Dustin Hoffman’s character do when an old rival comes to town?” but the rigid structure imposed on each episode means that the writer still has to care about, well, who wins the race and what Hoffman does when an old rival comes to town. Milch returns to the old ideal of one day equaling one episode (something he’s been fond of for years), but the need to include a horse race in every episode and several other structural tricks (like ending most episodes with Hoffman and a friend played by Dennis Farina waxing philosophic) gives the whole thing a wonderful bulk, a sense that it’s cohering, unlike Milch’s previous series, the ambitious but ultimately club-footed John From Cincinnati.

What is it about? That’s an almost impossible question to answer without spoiling much of the series’ later episodes, but it is about horse racing, yes, and it is about trying to find your way to a second chance. It’s also about seeing a wonderful cast tear into Milch’s dialogue and move gracefully through Mann’s technically austere world. (Milch, as in every series he’s created, heavily rewrote each episode, while Mann was responsible for the look and editing of every episode, though he only technically directed the pilot.) Dustin Hoffman, as “Ace” Bernstein, reminds you why he was such a highly acclaimed actor for so very long. Nick Nolte gives his very best wounded, grizzled veteran of life’s hard knocks as a novelistic character—a man who seems only capable of opening up to horses. Four gamblers hanging around the edges of the track are united by an unexpected moment, then become both a Greek chorus commenting on the action and a part of it. And while this is a very male-heavy ensemble, Kerry Condon stands out as a woman trying to become a jockey. (Jill Hennessy, sadly, has less to do as a stable veterinarian.)

Should you watch Luck? Having seen the first season, I’d obviously say yes, but I’m also keenly aware this is going to be a show that’s not for everyone, perhaps even less than Boardwalk Empire and Game Of Thrones were. Milch and Mann have always been acquired tastes, and while they’ve both been boiled down to their essences in this series, those aren’t going to be essences that work for absolutely everyone. At the same time, the plot and character motivations hinge heavily on understanding horse racing or gambling, and that’s something not every viewer is going to want to dive into the deep end to understand. There will be moments here—as when, say, Richard Kind jabbers excitedly to a shirt—that some viewers will simply tune out.

But at the same time, there’s an ineffable sense of desperate longing clinging to the series, a sense of the best days being past and the characters only slowly catching on to how the world doesn’t really care about them anymore. (It’s not a mistake that this is a show about a sport that hasn’t been wildly popular for almost a century.) It’s there every time the camera pans across a stadium that’s sadly empty. It’s there in every wounded glance the characters toss to each other. It’s there every time Nolte talks to that damn horse about the horse’s magnificent father. To a degree, understanding Luck is secondary to its true pleasure, which is simply letting it wash over you. It’s a TV series not really meant to be watched but to be experienced. For some, that will be a deal breaker. For others, though, it will be perfection.

Stray observation:

  • I’ve seen the entirety of the first season, but I’m writing this review as my next-to-last piece (I still haven’t reviewed the finale, which I just finished watching). Each week, my review will not reflect future events within the series, so you shouldn’t fear that. I will, however, include a brief section not of spoilers, but of things viewers may wish to pay attention to, a section that would be clearly marked and set aside for those who wanted to avoid it. I’ll only do that if interest seems heavy. I’m looking forward to “watching” the rest of the season with you.

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