On Sunday night, HBO aired the pilot of Luck, the new David Milch-created horse track series, this first episode directed by Michael Mann. The opening hour was an entrancing mixture of beautiful horses, stumble-bum gamblers, exciting races, and a tightly controlled yet open, emotional performance by Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman is Chester “Ace” Bernstein, recently released from a three-year prison stint; he took the fall for someone else, but is back to stake a claim as a wheeler-dealer in the gambling world. That’s one plot. Here’s another: four schmos who hang out at the Santa Anita racetrack all agree to bet the same numbers on a Pick Six, and end up splitting a two-million-plus buck jackpot. And another: Nick Nolte is a barely-scraping-by horse trainer who’s turning his current charge into a potential champion steed. There was a lot more, as well. Familiar faces dot Luck: Richard Kind as a stuttering agent for jockeys; John Ortiz, from Mann’s feature-film version of Miami Vice, has a crucial role as Escalante, who’s training the horse that Ace buys, but registers (because of his criminal record) as the owner his right-hand man, Gus, played by an ebullient Dennis Farina.
Milch, of course, is an HBO Hall of Famer for his creation of Deadwood, and had secured his place in broadcast history for his work on NYPD Blue. (He’s also the auteur of one of HBO’s most intriguing flops, John from Cincinnati.) Milch’s own creation myth involves study with literary lion Robert Penn Warren, a concomitant recent deal with the estate of William Faulkner to do God knows what to God knows which novels/short stories, and a more than passing interest in the ponies. It’s a wonder it took him this long to get around to crafting a horse-racing drama.
Luck is a luxuriously layered drama that uses the built-in, quick-burst excitement of the horse races to pace the more languid, alluring subplots that take place in the stables where the horses live, and the high-end hotel where Hoffman’s Ace takes up residence. It’s a top-to-bottom look at how a race track operates, how the people who work there and come to bet there use it as a place to forget the outside world, or to use their winnings to make a mark in the outside world, or use each other for respect, power, and love.
Mann does a remarkable job of setting the visual style for subsequent directors in the series to follow. The pilot returned again and again to shots of eyes — the big rich chocolate eyes of the horses; Hoffman’s hooded, hawk eyes; the exhausted, dimming eyes of Jason Gedrick (Boomtown, Murder One) as a “degenerate gambler” who’s hoping the Pick Six win will somehow save his life.
It was a beautiful hour of television to watch: The steam rising with an almost magical aura from the freshly exercised horses; the steely, inexorable pans across the faces of bettors as they strain their eyes, and their very souls, to figure out what position their horse is in during a race. Except for a few virtiginous overhead shots of the horses in the starting gate, the races were shot by Mann with the camera at the level of the horses bodies (it’s the animal version of Howard Hawks’ eye-height camera placement) as they glided horizontally across the screen. Mann’s outdoor color palette emphasizes the green of the grass, and picks up that tone wherever is appears, whether it’s a faded green shirt or a character’s green eyes.
There are other echoes as well. The early scene of Ace awaiting release from prison took place in white rooms, Hoffman glimpsed through white bars that recalled the way William Petersen and Brian Cox were framed in Manhunter.
Anyone who’s followed Mann’s TV career will recognize various alumni. In addition to Ortiz, Farina starred in Mann’s superb ’80s cop drama Crime Story. In future episodes, Barry Shabaka Henley turns up as Ace’s parole officer. Mann fans know him from the movies Ali, Miami Vice, and the vastly underrated 2002-2003 series Robbery Homicide Division. (Can we get a DVD release of RHD, please?)
From the Gil Scott-Heron music on the soundtrack to the staccato rhythm of the dialogue — “I’m tapped out — tapioca,” says Gedrick’s Jerry — Luck is a series about losers who nurse, sometimes desperately, sometimes coolly, the flickering flame of winning. Hoffman’s Ace might as well be talking to us as to Gus when he dropped the night’s final line: “I don’t trust no one, not even myself; you, I give a pass to.”
The full nine episodes of Luck will begin airing in January. It’s a brave piece of work, going against the blood, thunder, and mud style of Game of Thrones, or the lacquered polish of the season-ended Boardwalk Empire. I suspect Luck will need its own kind of luck to convince HBO subscribers to get on its wavelength — to go with the rhythm of its storytelling. But I’m tellin’ ya: It’s worth it.