I've written briefly about HBO's new drama "Luck" in this space a couple of times -- once in December, when HBO aired a sneak preview of the show after the "Boardwalk Empire" finale and once last week, in advance of the pilot's re-airing in its original time slot. But, as I really enjoy the show, I'm hoping to write a weekly recap. This is the first of those. Normally, I'd tell you there are spoilers below, but, if you haven't already seen the "Luck" pilot at least once by now, you probably don't much care about the show. Still, don't click through if you don't want to know.
When the "Luck" pilot first aired in December, it was a little tough to warm up to.
As you'd expect from director Michael Mann (one of two key creative forces in the series), the show looked gorgeous and the images of horse racing -- and of the horses themselves -- were rendered in painstaking, almost fetishistic, detail. Note the first glimpses we get of the horses in the pilot. They're seen in big close-up as they're washed and prepped for their day, with vapor rising off of the freshly scrubbed animals.
The racetrack itself -- Santa Anita in California -- is apparently one of the most beautiful tracks in the world, and that's easy to believe from the way it's photographed here.
The racing scene also are wonderfully rendered. Not only do they look great, but they sound great. You're probably not supposed to notice the musical score on a TV show, but I don't think the fact that I noticed the "Luck" pilot's score by Gary Lionelli (or that I looked to see who composed it) means it's not effective. On the contrary, I'm struck by the way the music's pounding rhythms are a perfect aural depiction of the way many horse racing enthusiasts feel during an important race.
Yet, despite its obvious technical accomplishments, I didn't embrace it right away. The show's other creative force, "Deadwood" and "John from Cincinnati" creator David Milch, specializes in creating elaborate worlds for his TV characters. That's certainly the case here, where the owners, trainers, jockeys, gamblers and others seem to speak their own language (HBO clearly is aware of this and sent out a five-page glossary of horse racing terms). My husband is into horse racing, and I've been to a number of races but still didn't understand everything that was going on with the four gamblers' strategy on the pick six or why the trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) was so secretive about the strength of his horse.
Having watched the pilot a second time (as well as having seen the show's full nine-episode first season), I understand things a little bit better. As with "Deadwood," "Luck" is a show with a lot of characters with a lot of complicated motives -- some of which they are more honest about than others. Thus, it requires commitment. But I promise you the investment is worth it.
OK, let's move on to talking specifically about this episode. The thing that strikes me about the pilot -- and that will be a theme throughout the season -- is how many characters are keeping secrets, with varying degrees of success.
Trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) is afraid to let the word out that his horse, Gettin' Up Morning, is a "peach" because of the pain and scandal surrounding the horse's father. Escalante doesn't want people to know that Mon Gateau is a strong horse so he can drive up the odds and collect big when the horse wins. Marcus (Kevin Dunn) doesn't want to come forward when he and his buddies win the pick six, because, well, he's paranoid.
Ace (Dustin Hoffman), having just gotten out of prison, can't own a horse, so he sets his driver and sidekick Gus (Dennis Farina) up as a frontman to buy the Irish champion Pint of Plain. This last ruse is the least successful. Even Gus knows no one believes he's really the horse's owner as evidenced by his experience getting his picture taken for the owner's license "I'm surprised the cameraman didn't ask who I thought I was kidding."
Secrecy is apparently common in the horse racing world and is a quality shared by Milch, himself a horse owner. Doing press for the show, Milch was asked how many horses he owns and, in a quote picked up by multiple media outlets, answered "It depends on who I'm lying to."
Another theme we'll see a lot of is partnerships. Gus and Ace are presented as partners as are the four gamblers (though the closest relationship in this group is between Marcus and Jason Gedrick's ace-handicapper/degenerate poker player Jerry). Joey the agent (Richard Kind) is trying to forge partnerships with the jockeys he represents, but Leon (Tom Payne) is a little too green to understand the business fully and Ronnie (real-life retired jockey Gary Stevens) seems fairly unstable.
It all sets up a heady mix of relationships, secrets and lies that will be interesting to watch evolve.
Anyway, here are some more thoughts on the pilot:
- Much has been made of the casting of Hoffman and Nolte, both film stars without much TV series experience. However, the real surprise here is Farina, known mainly for adding wit and heft to boilerplate cops-and-robbers roles. As Gus, he's charming, thoughtful and has wonderful chemistry with Hoffman (more on that later).
- It's bold move to open a series about horse racing with an episode in which a horse suffers a fatal breakdown, but I thought the sequence was sensitively handled, particularly the touching scene of Leon comforting the animal as it's being put down. The scene between Leon and Ronnie also is moving and tells us much about both men in just a few minutes. Particularly telling? Leon asking Ronnie how he has dealt with it in the past and Ronnie replying "You never get used to it. That's why they make Jim Beam." The breakdown also illustrates what a dangerous sport this is for the horses and the people riding them. It adds a whole other layer of tension to the already tense racing sequence to follow.
- OK, it took me two views to figure out what Jerry was doing with the guard at the track. He was apparently selling his picks to get stake money for his share of the group's pick-six ticket. Of course, this wins him little thanks from Marcus, who points out that, if the guard plays the picks, the pot will be split. Fortunately, the guard doesn't trust his investment in Jerry and doesn't play the horses.
- Another interesting thing that will be re-visited in future episodes -- Jerry is one of the few people who sees through Escalante and realizes what game he's playing with Mon Gateau. His picking that horse to win its race plays a key part in cashing in on the pick six.
- We also meet the show's two key female characters -- the spunky exercise girl Rosie (Kerry Condon) and the no-nonsense horse vet Jo (Jill Hennessy). They'll play key roles moving forward as well.
- OK, and here I'm introducing what I hope will be a regular feature of this recap. Without spoiling much, each episode features a scene where Gus and Ace sit in their suite and discuss various things. So, here it is -- Gus and Ace's Pillow Talk of the Week: "I don't trust anyone -- even myself. You, I give a pass." -- Ace