If, like me, you're not going to be watching the Super Bowl tonight (I can't even watch it for the commercials, since in Canada they pre-empt the American cool ones with Canadian boring ones) I'd like to recommend HBO's new series, Luck. It just started last week, and I know many of you are watching it already, but if not, it's worth changing the channel for.
The series, created by Deadwood creator David Milch and directed by the always amazing Michael Mann, follows three key storylines. In the main one, Chester Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman in his first TV role), a mobbed-up gambler, money launderer, casino operator (name that money-based crime, he's probably done it), has just gotten out of prison, and with the only person he trusts, his chauffeur Gus (Dennis Farina), he puts together a new scheme involving the Santa Anita racetrack. Using Gus as his frontman, he buys a horse from a trainer, Turo Escalante, and thus begins their entry into this world.
As is typical of any David Milch show, the dialogue can be complicated and very long. Don't pick up a magazine or check the internet during an episode or you'll be lost in about two minutes. There are times where the dialogue felt a little wooden and stilted, but necessary, such as when Dustin Hoffman relates, in a long monologue, exactly why he went to prison in the first place, to his friend Gus, who knows EXACTLY why he went to prison. But the audience needed to know, and Milch uses this scene as shorthand to convey to us some background. Often (and occasionally unfortunately), Milch never subscribed to the "Show, don't tell" theory of writing.
Also, unless you know something about horse-racing, there are details in here that can be a little over the average viewer's head. In the first episode, the foursome at the races attempt a gambling strategy that made no sense to me, and partway through the episode my husband and I were looking at each other, saying, "Uh... are you following this?" In the second episode, the plot revolves around a tournament that I didn't understand, either. BUT... in both cases, about 2/3 of the way through the episode, one of the characters finally explains what is happening. Milch clearly realized that his audience wouldn't necessarily know about horse-racing, so he provides the explanations through his characters (usually one person acts as the spokesperson for the audience, saying they don't understand what's happening, and another explains).
The acting, which comes as no surprise, is stellar. The actual horse races will have you on the edge of your seats, and the edits between the closeups of the jockeys and the faraway shots is so seamless I was convinced Kerry Condon had been trained as an actual jockey, before I read an article about her real-life award-winning jockey stand-in. As with most HBO series, the first couple of episodes contain a lot of set-up. It's hard to name a single HBO series that had such an amazing pilot I was hooked from the first episode. But, as with most HBO series, once you get past that first or second episode, what remains is a stunning series that only HBO has proven to deliver for so many years. What other series could pull a cast like this together... for television? Luck is proof that television has finally surpassed movies as being the superior form of storytelling.
Luck airs on HBO and HBO Canada at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights.