HBO's Dazzling Luck: Joy, Heartbreak, Awe and Thrills


This Sunday, January 29, HBO’s latest drama, Luck, debuts at 10p.  Luck, a journey into the subculture of thoroughbred horse racing, is an edge-of-the-seat thrill, one of the most engrossing, immersive series to brighten the screen in years.  In the Emmy race, Luck is likely to be the big contender in a number of categories, including best dramatic series.

You will feel as though you’re being transported, like a voyeur, into a world that smells of danger and excitement — only to gradually discover the place is inhabited with characters who have hearts, and a longing for camaraderie and connection.

Created by David Milch (Deadwood), the series is shot on location at the Santa Anita track in Southern California.  It’s a world that Milch knows well (he owns thoroughbred race horses) and the production team was given ample access to the track.  “Santa Anita is fantastic and because of the relations we have there,” said executive producer Michael Mann at press tour a few weeks ago,  “primarily because David has probably spent so much money over his lifetime at Santa Anita, the carpet was rolled out. But they were tremendously cooperative, and we have a great working relationship with them.”

The show is headlined by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.  This is some of their best work.  Yet, the supporting cast bench is rich and deep.  It’s a testament to the writers that, even with the impressive star power, Luck still feels ensemble-ish.

At press tour Hoffman had this to say: “We were just talking about it, Nick and I, because you don’t get it’s very hard to do your best work. But you want a shot at it.  And you cannot get a shot of doing your best work….in the studio system. You can’t.  There’s committees. There’s meetings. They’re on the set…..They get involved in a kind of quasi- at least I think it is creative way, but they butt heads with people that they shouldn’t be butting heads with. And with HBO, once they give a go, there is no committee. There are no meetings. These guys are allowed to try to do their best work, and they then give it to us.”

The first 10 minutes of the pilot are stunning.  In one brief, gorgeous sequence director Michael Mann captures the romance and the awe of the sport: a rooster signals the start of the day; steam rises from magnificent, just-washed thoroughbreds; the jockey colony hangs in the early morning light coffee in hand; slow motion captures the grace of colts on a warming run; and the misty snort of the horses is backlit by gold light.

If this is David Milch’s love letter to the track, then Michael Mann has completely captured his feelings.

You might think, as a viewer, you’ve died and gone to television heaven.  You have, pretty much.

Like The Wire, Luck places demands on brainpower.  The showrewards patience and attentiveness.  Just learning the vernacular can be challenging.  Fortunately, it’s used judiciously and HBO has set up a handy glossary page.

Escalante, the gifted Peruvian horse trainer played by John Ortiz, speaks with an accent so thick that often my husband and I couldn’t decipher the dialog, even after two or three replays.  Plus, the show is intricate, weaving multiple story lines.  (There are 13 regular cast members plus a multiplicity of recurring and special guests, including Michael Gambon and Joan Allen.)

Do not, I repeat, do not walk away from your television.  Do not be discouraged.   You will soon be mesmerized and perched on the edge of your seat.

In Luck everyone is drawn inexorably back to the track.  It’s a place full of hope, the longing for the big break, the addiction to the thrill - from Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), a wealthy high roller/dealmaker recently released from prison and living on a top floor luxury hotel suite, to the down-and-out quartet of friends bound by their shared addiction to the track.  They bet their disability checks on the races and live in a shabby motel where they hold little barbecues next to an empty pool, drained long ago of water.

But, rather than judging, we understand and sympathize.  It’s too beautiful, too thrilling, too addictive.  They can’t walk away and neither can we.  Milch and Mann are opening our eyes to the WHY of it.

The race footage is thundering, enthralling. The tension is palpable. Your heart will pound and race along with the horses - the crescendo of the music keeping time with the rhythm of the hooves.  (The soundtrack is gorgeous, but mostly unsentimental.)

Hoffman is magnetic, a zero to sixty machine, surging from dead calm to rage in three seconds flat.  Gus (Dennis Farina) is his chauffeur, close friend and confidante, and now his front man in the business.

At age 70, Nick Nolte is brilliant as Walter Smith, the grieving, wizened horse owner looking for redemption.

The supporting cast is Sopranos-perfect.  Great performances are so abundant,  it seems almost unfair to spotlight just a few but…  special mention goes to Jill Hennessy (Jo Carter), the gruff veterinarian; the versatile Ritchie Coster (Renzo Calagari) as one member of the quartet who is all heart and loyalty; Richard Kind (Joey Rathburn), the stuttering jockey’s agent.  And Gary Stevens (Ronnie Jenkins) quietly, expressively conveys the desperation of a veteran jockey in the twilight of his career.  (Stevens is the famed jockey who played George “The Iceman” Woolf in Seabiscuit.)

But what really surprised me about this series:  Luck is also about chosen family and the brotherhood of obsession.  This show has so much heart, so much hope and yearning.  In an age where television has a surplus of anti-heroes and bleak storylines in which nothing good happens to characters, Luck blew me apart with its warmth.  Bad things happen, but so do good things, nice things, sweet things. We want these characters to win and sometimes they do. They squabble, and friendships fray, but they come back together again in adversity.  They help each other.  There is generosity and love, and poignancy and loyalty, joy and awe and heartbreak.

Of course, matters could take a darker turn at almost any time.  (I’ve screened four episodes so far.)

Still, it’s just…a beautiful thing to behold.