His tale can’t be told at a gallop
Anyone who has been to Santa Anita in the early morning hours knows it is a place of poetry and pathos. Those time-weathered men, their eyes lined in mutual squint, gathered in sacramental silence to watch the horses move by, haloed by steam and sending dirt up in clods rich and dark; the sound of the hooves is like the beating pulse of the Earth itself.
But how to tell the story of such a place without lapsing into overworked extremes, the sentiment of bond between human and horse, the simplistic adrenaline of a champion’s tale, the heartbreak of gambling’s larcenous core?
Ve-ry slow-ly and without much concern for convention is the answer, at least if you are David Milch, whose new and much-anticipated series “Luck” got a sneak-preview premiere on HBO on Sunday night. “Luck” will officially debut in January, but the folks at HBO hoped to leverage the viewership for “Boardwalk Empire’s” season finale.
It may work, it may not, though it’s surprising that Milch went for it since, after yanking the still-mourned “Deadwood,” HBO debuted his next series, “John From Cincinnati,” right after the finale of “The Sopranos.” The howling vacuum left by that now-famous final scene was not why “John From Cincinnati” failed, but it certainly did not help.
The juxtaposition of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Luck” is similarly jarring, but then it’s difficult to imagine any show that would prepare an audience for the first episode of “Luck,” which moves with slow and often maddening deliberation, showing the occasional glimpse of astonishing power, like a thoroughbred moving around a morning track under an iron hand. Much is revealed, and nothing at all, as characters are introduced with little or no context, midconversation as it were, in a place that few viewers will find familiar, speaking in small, seemingly nonessential sentences that have meaning only to the other characters.
The show opens with Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) being released from prison into the care of his driver, Gus (Dennis Farina). Ace has, apparently, taken the fall for certain colleagues. He is now, it seems, setting up some sort of payback that involves a horse Gus now “owns,” courtesy of Ace, who cannot afford to be seen too much around the track.
The site is where an orchestra of colorful characters make their carefully timed entrances. There’s the short-tempered trainer Escalante (John Ortiz), dressing down a chatty jockey named Goose (Jeffrey Woody Copland), whose agent, nicknamed Porky Pig and played by a stammering Richard Kind, tries to talk some sense into him while eyeballing a potential Derby winner -- who is owned by “The Old Man,” a laconic Nick Nolte muttering vague self-indictments into his white whiskers.
Meanwhile, a quartet of down-and-outers, led by Kevin Dunn as the oxygen-huffing, wheelchair-bound Marcus, attempts to hit a big win and provide a Greek chorus on the wily and fractured nature of luck and the disparate nature of the souls it ensnares.
All the big seeds are planted -- love, power, self-destruction, betrayal, revenge, redemption -- though planted so deep one can’t imagine them blooming anytime soon. Even the master of the multiple storyline, Charles Dickens, took pity on his readers and appointed a protagonist, but Milch and director Michael Mann steadfastly refuse, though Ace and the Old Man quickly emerge, if only through sheer star power.
At this point in his career, Hoffman can and does act using only the back of his head. He keeps Ace so carefully (and barely) under control that he doesn’t allow him a single smile (although the scene in which Ace’s temper flares is ultimately very funny), and Farina provides a perfect foil in Gus, who communicates with his boss in the same almost wordless way a jockey communicates with his horse.
Nolte’s Old Man is a rumpled, even weepy mess by comparison, and if neither character has the standard trappings of hero or antihero, they each shiver and smoke like volcanoes no longer dormant.
And that’s about all you’re going to get, ladies and gentlemen, at least until January, and even then it will unfold in its own sweet time. It is a great and perilous experiment, this “Luck,” with Milch relying on the patience of HBO and HBO counting on the track record and talent of its creator and stars to draw viewers into a show that speaks its own cryptic language and steadfastly refuses to reveal its intentions.
The assumption is that this is game-changing TV, which makes one wonder that in consideration of the real power being summoned here, a better series title might have been “Faith.”