Making my way through HBO's new racetrack drama"Luck," I wondered at times if I was looking at a new rule-breaking version of the art form, a Monet perhaps, or a "Ulysses." Or I wondered if it was just a show drowning in pretension, the work of people hoping that novelty would disguise a lack of professional rigor.
Having finished the nine-episode first season, I am inclined toward the former, though there is enough of the latter to make me appreciate the confines of more traditional television storytelling. Also, the value of network notes.
"Luck," which had a sneak-preview premiere last month, is the love child of David Milch ("Deadwood," "John From Cincinnati") and Michael Mann ("Crime Story," "Miami Vice"), two hyper-masculine forces of nature whose combined gene pool is very much in evidence.
Constructing not so much a television show as a series of meticulously drawn portraits, Milch and Mann drop viewers into the biosphere of the Santa Anita racetrack, with only our wits to aid us, and drive off, possibly laughing uproariously.
We meet in fairly quick succession, though in no discernible order, the cast of characters who will serve as narrative framework — "Luck" has a plot only in the most elastic sense of the word, which is to say things happen. Occasionally. Fortunately the characters are, almost to a man (and the ratio of male to female is about 12 to 1 here), fleshed out by some of the most astonishing performances you will see on any screen this year.
As Chester "Ace" Bernstein, a vengeful mobster just out of prison, Dustin Hoffman is the show's headliner and deservedly so — as I noted in my review of the sneak preview, his roiling yet restrained Ace perfectly embodies both the tone of the show and the tensions of the track.
In early episodes especially, when the rest of the characters require buttressing from the show's brilliant cinematography and vivid sense of place — is there any sports venue more inherently poetic than the racetrack? — Ace does not. Because he's played by Hoffman and because he's got Gus (Dennis Farina).
As Gus, Ace's bodyguard/consigliere/BFF, Farina is "Luck's" biggest revelation. A longtime associate of Mann's, Farina delivers the best performance of his career, bringing humanity and humor into the room whenever he's on screen. His presence allows Hoffman to do what he does best — explore the personal pain that twists behind even the most implacable facade.
Silver-haired and craggy-faced both, they are two men who have lived long and dangerously together, who understand each other only too well and love each other anyway. The hottest couple of 2012.
They are not alone in their battered but mutual affection. "Luck" is about many things, most obviously the obsessive work and absurd dedication that is behind virtually any instance of "luck."
But at its heart, the show rhapsodizes the unexpected forms of love that sustain the broken men of this particular world. The liquid-eyed trainer Escalante (John Ortiz) may have figured out a way to control both the horses and the odds, but his most difficult task is to open his heart wide enough to let Jill Hennessy's tough but tender vet slip in sideways.
Nick Nolte's trainer-owner Walter may be kind to the young exercise rider, Rosie (Kerry Condon), but his love is reserved for his horse, a champion in the making in whom Walter has placed all his hope for personal redemption.
In the stands, a quartet of track rats who kick off what action there is by winning a huge Pick Six pot form a life raft of co-dependence. There's Marcus (Kevin Dunn), the wheelchair-bound, oxygen-huffing pessimist who serves as the group's leader; Jerry (Jason Gedrick), its remarkably good-looking gambling addict/odds-genius; the perennially good-natured if dimly lit Renzo (Ritchie Coster); and Lonnie, a macher-wannabe played by Ian Hart. Though streaked with grit and frayed at the edges, together they form Milch's valentine to male friendship and the gambling life.
More brutally drawn are Richard Kind's sad-sack agent Joey; his young client, Leon (Tom Payne); and his former client, Ronnie (played by former jockey turned actor Gary Stevens). While Leon struggles to keep his weight down and Ronnie tries to stay sober, Joey wanders perilously close to accepting that he is indeed bereft of luck, a loser whose hard work will not pay off.
There isn't a performer in "Luck" who is not, at some point, given scenes of real power and true beauty, and none of them disappoint (newcomer Condon is certainly someone to watch.)
Virtually every episode of "Luck" has moments of rapture, some created by the adrenaline rush of the races (which have never looked better), many emerging from moments of good writing, fine direction and even better acting.
But a story is more than moments on a string, and in their attempt to fly high without the safety net of traditional exposition, the creators of "Luck" too often dismiss the central responsibility of the storyteller: Remember that you have an audience.
Many people have perfectly wonderful ideas for television shows in their heads; what separates the professionals is their ability to articulate those ideas in a way that resonates with others. "Luck's" first four or five episodes play too much like a private conversation about things that happen at the track, things that don't necessarily matter much in the long run.
This could be forgiven in pursuit of a new form of television, but the arch "keep up or shut up" quality that accompanies it cannot. We are not stupid, but we are not psychic. Color and character complexity should enrich a story, not obscure it.
If you make it to the end, the payoff is sweeter for the suffering. In the meanwhile, enjoy each scene on its own merits, which are not inconsiderable. And the horses really are amazing.