Jeremy Likes TV

I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

Review: Luck

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Grade: A

Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors. His visual style is unique and to call him an innovator is not overstating matters an iota. The flair he brought to the Miami Vice television series defined an era and to watch Manhunter or Heat or The Insider is to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re watching a Michael Mann film. David Milch was the driving force behind two of the seminal television dramas of the past two decades. I watched the entire run of NYPD Blue – a show which isn’t given nearly enough credit for being as innovative as it was – and was amazed by Deadwood, itself often overlooked in the discussion of television’s greatest dramas. Dustin Hoffman has been a screen legend for close to 50 years. The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Rain Man… the list goes on. So the fact that one project, HBO’s new drama Luck, has put these three legends of film and television together is nothing less than one of the greatest gifts of entertainment in recent memory. While none of the three men is above dropping a dud here and there in their career – Public Enemies, John From Cincinnati, and Ishtar, respectively, say hello – it would be almost impossible for Luck to be a disappointment with the combined powers of this exceptional trio behind it. And, indeed, based on the strength of its pilot episode it appears that HBO has another potential classic on its hands.

One of the marks of a great television show is its ability to take a subject that its audience may not be particularly interested in and to then make that subject compelling. That’s what Luck does with the sport of horse racing. Personally, I couldn’t care any less about horse racing than I already do. Every year, people go nuts over the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness while others spend their hard-earned cash at their local track hoping to catch a string of good fortune. This is anathema to me. I don’t understand it. I never will. So, it would stand to reason that a series that immerses the viewer in every aspect of the race game – from trainers, to doctors, to jockeys, to agents, to degenerate gamblers [1] – wouldn’t move the needle at all for me but that is most definitely not the case with Luck. Read that first paragraph again and you’ll see that I was already pre-disposed to fall in Luck’s favor but damned if this pilot didn’t make me want to know more about this world. Tell me more about why Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein (Hoffman) spent time in jail and why he’s now using his driver/muscle Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina, Get Shorty) as a front to purchase a top-flight racehorse. Let me know why mysterious and legendary trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte, 48 HRS) is so damaged. Show me why horse trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz, The Job) is so alternately revered and feared within the industry. Clue me in as to how the grimy gambling crew comprised of Jerry (Jason Gedrick), Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Renzo (Ritchie Coster), and Lonnie (Ian Hart) expect to split an unlikely $2.6MM payday without any complication.

It’s been said that HBO series are moving away from the episodic model of television towards a more novel-based style of storytelling so trying to review one of their shows based on a single hour is akin to reviewing a book after reading just the first chapter but it’s clear that something special is brewing with Luck. The pilot begins the process of setting up the storylines – Bernstein’s release from prison; Smith’s training of the offspring of a former champion horse that he also trained who some believe could end up as a Kentucky Derby-caliber champion; jockey Leon Micheaux’s (Tom Payne) attempts to curry favor with Escalante to the annoyance of his agent, Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind, Spin City) and the emotional toll the death of a horse takes on him; the pooled resources and winnings of Marcus’s crew, which includes the brilliant but slave-to-gambling Jerry. Obviously, Hoffman’s star power is going to lend Bernstein the limelight more than any character here and true, it seems like his revenge plot against those form whom he took a fall will be the main thrust of the first season but again, the pilot was like the lead chapter of a novel so it’s hard to say where the story is ultimately headed [2], but one thing that will likely carry from episode to episode is Luck’s style.

While some big-screen auteurs (coughMartinScorcesecough) lend their names to television projects but have little to do with them after the pilot, Mann had a gigantic hand in the entirety of Luck’s first season. While the the pilot was the lone episode of the nine produced that he helmed, he reportedly left a gigantic three-ring binder detailing how every single scene was to be shot, the score that was to be used, hell… he probably told craft-services what kind of food they should be providing on set as well. The point is, visually, Luck is Mann to the core and that is one of the biggest factors leading to its success. There’s a reason that you hire Michael Mann for a project of this ilk and it shows in the way the camera captures the majesty of the horses. It’s evident in the inherent danger of the races. It’s an incredibly gorgeous show to look at and, even if the content was not up to snuff I’d continue to watch because it’s a beautiful with a capital ‘B’ show. Luckily, Milch’s presence – John From Cincinnati aside – ensures that Luck will be something far from “not up to snuff.” Just as Mann’s fingerprints are all over the visual style of the show, from a content standpoint it’s Milchian all the way. Milch has long talked about how horse racing has been a lifelong passion of his and that passion comes through in his attention to every little detail. He plunges his audience into the world with little regard for the learning curve needed to understand the racing game, but audiences these days are sophisticated. They usually have little need for hand-holding and Milch trusts that the viewer will be able to catch up, though the presence of characters like Renzo [3] and Lonnie – two of the gamblers who are ever-present at the track – serve as audience surrogates as they themselves are newbies to racing.

In the end, perhaps the only thing that can doom Luck is the gigantic egos of the three central figures involved. If the trio can learn to play nice with one another – and reports are mixed as to how the personalities clashed over the filming of the first season – there’s no reason that Luck can’t be the next great television drama. It carries the HBO cache as well as the boost that the reputation of lifers like Mann, Milch, and Hoffman bring to the table. Its pilot was a thrilling hour of television that only hinted at the heights that the series can achieve. Watching this show play out over the next eight weeks is going to be a fascinating experience.

[1] It’s clearly a deft move for Luck to give its viewers a look at the racing world from every possible angle.
[2] And, true to most Milch projects, the dialogue of Luck is daunting so I have no problem admitting I had a hard time following a large part of what was going on. But, as with anything, the immersion into Milch’s world will eventually allow those inscrutable elements to reveal themselves.
[3] Interesting anecdote seen in a couple of reviews: Ritchie Coster, the actor playing Renzo, was cast in part because he knew little about racing in real-life thus a lot of the naiveté that Renzo shows towards the sport is actually genuine coming from Coster’s real life experience.

Miscellany:
*The pilot got off to a great start right from the jump. Love the selection of Massive Attack’s “Splitting The Atom” as the show’s theme song. It immediately set a great tone, as does the Gil Scott-Heron on the soundtrack later.
*Beyond the Massive Attack theme, the score itself was of the Explosions In The Sky-esque sweeping post-rock variety that’s prevalent of late and that works so well in setting mood in situations like this. Another great choice.
*Jason Gedrick is a solid actor who seems to have been drifting along over the years in search of the right part. He (visually) looks like shit here, but it fits the degenerate gambler character that he’s playing so well and the pathos and regret that he imbues into Jerry is the good kind of painful to watch. I think his search may finally be over.
*Kevin Dunn as the handicapped ringleader of the gamblers gives off more than a little Andy Sipowicz vibe. Just as Sipowicz was Milch’s stand-in on NYPD Blue, methinks that Marcus is the Milch of Luck.
*Casting a real-life jockey – Gary Stevens – as down-on-his-luck jockey Ronnie Jenkins was a smart move. I really liked how the show took a look at the toll that racing takes on the jockeys as well, particularly in the scene where a horse needs to be euthanized after breaking its leg in a race. It was heartbreaking to watch.
*”Will someone please tell me what’s happening?”  Had to chuckle at this line by Ian Hart’s Lonnie in the middle of the episode’s final race. Because of Milch’s deliberately obtuse dialogue, I’m sure many viewers were wondering the same thing.
*”You think you’re the first front in history?”
*”Don’t wind yourself up. Your face is going all different colors.”
*”When’s the last time you saw your p—-k without a mirror?”
*”I’d like to watch you hit by a bus.”
*”Here, give him a carrot.” “Nah… I don’t want to f–k him up.” “How will that f–k him up? That’s what he eats.”
*”No one’s trying to humiliate you.” “Tell that to whoever put me in this body.”

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Written by jeremylikestv

February 9, 2012 at 11:00 am

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