The first time veteran TV writer David Milch went to work for HBO, the result was Deadwood. After three seasons of epic profanity and mud-spattered shootouts, the series was abruptly cancelled. The promise of two TV movies that would wrap up the multitude of unfinished storylines remains unfulfilled.
Milch’s collaboration with HBO continued with John From Cincinnatti, a hard-to-describe – or watch – parable about a messiah-like figure and his effect on a surfing dynasty. John sputtered to a halt after one series.
But despite the somewhat unfulfilling nature of their relationship, Milch and HBO, earlier this year announced a third project. That the new show Luck was to be a drama set in the world of horse racing was immediately encouraging.
Milch knows the racetrack from every angle. He knows it as a winner: he’s a horse owner with several Breeder’s Cup champions to his name. And he certainly knows it as a loser: gambling figures high among his plethora of lifelong addictions.
Michael Mann subsequently signed on as producer and director. The cast included Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and Michael Gambon. Although Luck doesn’t officially premiere until the end of January, HBO have such confidence in the series that they took the step of debuting the pilot episode directly after the season finale of Boardwalk Empire on Sunday night.
Michael Gambon stars in Luck Photograph: HBO
This is a promotional maneuvre that seems like it should be commonplace but which no network has dared attempt since Fox sneak-previewed the pilot of Glee after the final of American Idol two years ago.
Obviously, Idol and Glee share similarly excitable audiences. At first glance Boardwalk Empire has one thing in common with Luck: they both revolve around unlikely criminal masterminds. Boardwalk Empire has Steve Buscemi’s exasperated power broker Nucky Thompson. Luck has Dustin Hoffman’s Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a professional gambler who we first encounter tasting freedom after a three-year jail sentence for which he was set up.
At this stage we don’t know exactly who set him up. But we know he’s going to exact revenge before the series is over. But then, the way Hoffman plays him, Ace Bernstein might not make it to the end of the series. Ace is old. He’s shrunk a few inches since he’s been inside. His memory isn’t great. He can’t stay up late. He embarrasses himself when he tries to act like a badass.
The passage of time is also catching up with his chauffeur and right-hand man, Gus (permanently bronzed Michael Mann regular Farina), down-at-heel horse owner Walter (Nick Nolte, so grizzled his voice is just a series of vibrations) and devious trainer Escalante (John Ortiz). Hoffman’s attempts to insinuate himself back into the racing world for the purposes of violent retribution take a backseat in the preview episode.
Most of the hour is devoted to a quartet of gambling addicts whose sweat-stained disarray is at odds with the lush greenery of the beauteous Santa Anita racetrack. Little happens in the pilot beyond establishing Hoffman’s return to a universe that rejected him and the desperation of the four hardcore track addicts.
But what little does happen, happens in an extremely aesthetically arousing manner. This is, after all, Michael Mann. If you’re expecting steam rising off horses as they move in slow-motion, you will not be disappointed. If you’re hoping to feel so close to the races that you’re actually perched on a saddle, this is the show for you.
Whether it’s a series with a lengthy lifespan is a different question. As much as America loves sports, it does not love TV shows about fictional sports. Last year’s Superbowl audience was over 100 million. Baseball and basketball draw huge numbers. Have football, baseball and basketball ever inspired hit TV shows? No, they have not. And horse racing is way less popular.
What the nation does enjoy, however, is brutal payback, back-alley beatings and old men screaming in each other’s bright red faces. The preview of the forthcoming season promised an abundance of those items. On the basis of one episode, Luck is already intriguing enough that it’s unlikely anyone’s going to bet against David Milch and HBO this time around.
Tags: criminal masterminds, david milch, dustin hoffman, episode, HBO, horse, john from cincinnatti, michael gambon, series, show, USA
Categories: The Western Press