After getting blown away by the fourth episode, all I can say is–whoa what a show! Although the series can be confusing and wandering in the early episodes, if you give this nag a chance, she’s going to race into your heart.
Even though I never even liked horseracing, this drama, set in that world, has got me hooked and betting the farm. I was a little skeptical and sometimes confused in the early going. It’s tough juggling a big cast of characters, and there’s a lot of racing lingo to decipher, and the plot is almost non-existant.
But it all starts to come together in episode four with an especially stirring race that will send your heart racing and your eyes misting. My TV pal and fave reviewer, Alan Sepinwall (see my post about him here) tipped me off to the show and can describe it much better than I, so I’ll turn the show over to him…
Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte head to the track in HBO’s LUCK
by Alan Sepinwall
One of the great things about art, if you’re good at what you do — and few in TV history have been better at it than David Milch and Michael Mann, the chief writer and director, respectively, behind HBO’s horseracing drama “Luck” — is that you can use your art to take something you care deeply about and make other people care deeply too, even if they never expected to.
I have no sentimental attachment to horseracing and could only vaguely follow many of the show’s early storylines about Pick Six line-ups and claiming races. Yet I became caught up in the world of the track, and the passions of the people who gravitate towards it, thanks to the artistry of Milch (“Deadwood,” “NYPD Blue”), Mann (“Miami Vice,” “Crime Story”) and their many gifted collaborators, including a cast headed by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.
“Luck” (which begins its 9-episode season Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO) is a show about a sport that has seen far, far better days. The Santa Anita racetrack where most of the action takes place is usually 3/4 empty. The people who hang around the track — trainers and vets, gamblers and owners, reporters and jockeys — all can tell that they should probably be plying their trade somewhere else, and yet there is nowhere else they would rather be.
(Some mild spoilers follow, but most of them refer to the show’s first episode, which HBO aired as a sneak preview in mid-December and will be airing again on Sunday night.)
Hoffman plays Chester “Ace” Bernstein, legendary fixer who has just emerged from a prison stretch determined to get revenge on the men who robbed him of three years of his life, but only inasmuch as his scheme doesn’t interfere with Pint of Plain, the beautiful, gentle horse he bought to race at Santa Anita.
Because Ace is on parole, he’s not legally allowed to own a horse, and we learn that he engineered an elaborate, costly ruse so that his driver/bodyguard Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina, who was discovered by Mann for “Thief” and later fronted “Crime Story”) could buy Pint of Plain for him. And the longer “Luck” goes on, the more obvious it becomes that most of the people hanging around Santa Anita have contorted themselves in some irrational way to get there and stay there.
When a quartet of degenerate gamblers led by expert handicapper Jerry (Jason Gedrick) and his dyspeptic friend Marcus (Kevin Dunn) wins big one day, they pour their cash into subsidizing a lifestyle that barely acknowledges the world away from the track. Former Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Ronnie (played by real-life champion jockey Gary Stevens, who continues on the promise he showed as an actor in “Seabiscuit”) has turned to booze and painkillers to deal with the countless injuries and heartaches of his profession, but he can’t walk away.
Neither can Walter Smith (Nolte), an aging trainer still tortured by the death of one of his horses, and who has now poured his entire mind, body and soul into getting its son, Gettin’ Up Morning, ready to race. Nolte gets to deliver a number of riveting speeches to the horse (as we saw on “Deadwood,” Milch is fond of characters monologuing to animals, objects and/or people that can’t talk back), and he gives himself over so physically to the role that it appears on a number of occasions that Walter may keel over dead in an instant if things go poorly for his prize animal.
It’s a race involving that horse in the show’s fourth episode that brings the series together. Like a lot of HBO dramas — including the all-time great ones like “Deadwood,” “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” — “Luck” takes a few hours to establish its world, characters and rules, and there are some stumbles in the early chapters.(*) But when Gettin’ Up Morning races in front of the small crowd, “Luck” — and its love of this dirty, obsolete, addictive world — comes to life. The writing, direction, editing and acting all come together to paint a beautiful picture of why these people don’t want to leave, and why you should stay there, too… (more)