Sunday, February 05, 2012

HBO's Luck

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.

Meanwhile, Nick Nolte, in the most poignant story, plays Walter Smith, a sad trainer who's been around the block many times, trying to trap lightning in a bottle one last time with a young horse whose father Nolte had trained, loved, and lost.

And on the frontlines of the races are four guys, led by Kevin Dunn, who have scored HUGE and are now trying to find a way to circumvent the IRS while finding an even bigger payday (of these, my favourite character is Renzo, played wonderfully by Richie Coster). On the edges of these stories you have the stuttering Joey Rathburn, played by Richard Kind (who I still think of as the lame grasshopper in Bug's Life), an agent for the jockeys, and one of those jockeys, Rosie (Kerry Condon), trying to convince the trainers to use her full time.

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.


Unknown said...

Yet another show currently building up on my DVR. I'm really looking forward to taking a couple of hours this week and seeing some new Milch. Plus, the cast seems stellar, and once upon a time I was known to place a bet or three on the ponies now and again, so I'm psyched.

I hope Luck turns out to be fantastic, gripping, grimy, unexpectedly touching and complex as Milch has been on HBO in the past, but we'll see.

I was also excited to hear that Milch had made an exclusive deal with the literary estate of William Faulkner and HBO to produce multiple adaptations of Faulkner's works with HBO getting first refusal rights. Can you imagine that? Faulkner done by Milch?!?? *telegasm!*

Joan Crawford said...

Ooh! I can't wait to start in on this one! HBO is the best 17 bucks a month I've ever spent.