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TV Diary | Luck: “Episode 3”

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TV Diary | Luck – Episode 1.03 – “Episode 3” – Original Airdate: 2/12/12

Episode Grade: A-

I’m not sure whether it’s because Luck’s getting easier to understand by design or that immersion into the world of the show is starting to take hold but I felt significantly less confused after the conclusion of “Episode 3” than I did at any point during either of its first two episodes. Again, it’s becoming clearer that there are three major threads in the show: Ace’s pursuit of revenge, the Four Amigos [1] and their foray into the world of horse ownership, and Walter’s attempt to prepare Gettin’ Up Morning [2] for big money races, so we’ll continue to look at the show from those standpoints. “Episode 3” introduced a new player in Ace’s pending confrontation with his former partner Mike [3] Suits’ Patrick J. Adams as a smarmy derivatives expert who works for a firm that Ace owns as part of his legitimate business pursuits. Beyond the fact that it was surprising to a degree to see Ace running a legit enterprise, Adams registered an immediate impression when his David Israel was the lone member of a board meeting that Ace was running who had the gumption to speak his opinion, leading Ace to abruptly exit the meeting and then ask for a private audience with Israel. Later, after meeting with Israel and Gus in his hotel room, Ace takes a liking to him almost solely because – as he remarks to Gus – “He’ll irritate the shit out of Mike.” The shading of the Israel character isn’t anything that hasn’t been seen before – the savant who’s really good at what he does but is lacking in any type of social grace – but it establishes Israel as yet another cog in Ace’s expanding plan for revenge. “Episode 3” also marked the first appearance of Michael Mann vet Joan Allen [4] as Claire Lachay, a woman who runs a non-profit organization devoted to rehabilitating horses and who it would appear – based on Ace’s lingering glance at her – could end up positioned as a love interest for Mr. Bernstein before too long. While two new players were introduced into Ace’s orbit, the Four Amigos (or 4A) continued on in their quest for ownership of Mon Gateau, Escalante’s former horse who was claimed in “Episode 2” after Escalante’s con of making it appear that the horse was injured while entering him in a claiming race backfired. Lonnie’s near-death experience with the would-be-murdering hookers seems to have galvanized the entire group’s resolve as Jerry in particular looks much less haggard than we’ve seen him at any point in the series thus far. He’s enlisted by the rest of the group to meet with the winning claimant, played by W. Earl Brown (probably best known as Deadwood’s Dan Dority). After securing ownership of Mon Gateau from Brown, Jerry is then able to convince Escalante to stay on as Mon Gateau’s trainer, news that’s seen and received as a gigantic victory by his three partners. The scene where Escalante gives them the rundown on what his services entail [5] is marked by the wonder on the 4A’s faces when Mon Gateau is brought to them up close and personal. Again, just as in the pilot, Luck takes great care to show its audience how majestic these animals really are and the reaction of the four men shows that that majesty is enough to strip away any negativity present in that one moment. It’s a great scene as played by all four actors [6]. And as in “Episode 3,” the least traction comes in the Walter thread where the biggest development is that Walter loses Ronnie as a candidate to ride Gettin’ Up Morning after Ronnie takes a spill in a race and breaks a collarbone, sidelining him for a good period of time and for long enough that Walter ponders bringing Rosie back from Portland to be his jockey. Nick Nolte is great but of Luck’s three major threads, this is the one that’s moving the needle the least for me, but we are only three episodes in. There’s plenty of time for Walter’s story to find its groove and prove that it’s just as strong as the rest of Luck is shaping up to be.

[1] Since this is what Renzo suggests they should call their stable, this is how I’m going to refer to them beginning… now.
[2] Hell… I even managed to learn the names of the two principal horses thanks to this episode. Hooray for progress!
[3] Who I’d expect to be introduced very, very soon.
[4] I’d completely forgotten the pivotal role that Allen played in Mann’s 1986 classic Manhunter until Alan Sepinwall pointed it out in his review of “Episode 3.”
[5] And good damn… it costs a shitton of money for upkeep on horses. Holy shit.
[6] The contrast between Renzo’s childlike wide-eyedness and Lonnie’s scared reluctance to approach Mon Gateau is a nice touch, too.

Miscellany:
*I mentioned in my review of “Episode 2” that there was a palpable childlike quality to Gus but that label could just as easily be affixed to Renzo. His telling everyone within earshot that the 4A are thinking of buying a racehorse is proof of that, but so is his instinctive need to take care of people. It’s clear that he views the purchase of Mon Gateau as something that can keep the Four Amigos together but he’s just as insistent that Goose, the man who helped guide him through the claiming process in “Episode 2,” is given 5% of all of Mon Gateu’s winnings as a token of his appreciation for Goose’s help. Renzo is quickly turning into the kind of guy you root for, even as Richie Coster often plays him as if Renzo just smelled a fart. Just an observation.
*”People make adjustments.” Liked seeing Ace’s parole officer parrot this “Episode 2” line back to him after he shows up at Ace’s hotel for a routine urine test only to find that Ace has the hotel’s gym all to himself.
*Between Ronnie’s accident, Leon taking a header onto a tile floor and cracking his head open after a weight-loss-inducing sauna session, and the near accident on the track as Gus watched Ace’s horse almost collide with another animal coming the wrong way, Luck is doing a fine job of showing us the inherent dangers of the horseracing industry. Not to mention that Ronnie’s descent (or relapse) into drug abuse is clearly a coping mechanism for the stress and eventual emptiness of the sport being taken away, even if only for a brief period.
*To that end, the scene were Ronnie hands over a bill to a liquor store clerk to buy some booze that he’d used as a coke straw not five minutes earlier? Classy move.
*I wouldn’t be surprised if Luck is setting up some competition for who gets to ride Gettin’ Up Morning between Leon and the returning Rosie.
*That Escalante and his veterinarian are fuck buddies makes perfect sense in retrospect. The scene earlier in the episode where he offhandedly accuses her of leaking sensitive information on Mon Gateau that lead to the horse being claimed was fraught with sexual tension.
*The staging of the scene in the hotel after Israel shows up for his meeting with Ace stood out in a very positive way as Ace, Adams, Lachay, and the hotel’s concierge all walk to the elevator as Massive Attack’s “Angel” plays on the soundtrack might have made it one of my favorites in the show’s three episodes thus far.
*”Mr. Late For Me Is Prompt.”
*”Jesus Christ you fucked this up. Every part to every damn aspect.”
*”I break this fucking collarbone more than I get laid.”
*”You think this comes from a job at McDonald’s?”
*”Define junk more precisely.” “A Chinese sailboat.”
*”I’d like to use the lavatory.” “America, kid.”
*”Don’t be poaching my ketchup. You’ve got ketchup of your own.”
*”My guess, honey, if that ain’t a week’s work and something to put in the basket on Sunday you better call me a greedy motherfucker.”
*”I know you’re not gonna flunk him on account of me being fresh?” “No. That would make us both unprofessional assholes.”
*”Oh… put on your to-do list? Go fuck yourself.”
*”Go home. Come back tomorrow tell me every fucking thing you did between now and then. If I like what I hear I’ll give you a million dollars for the next twelve months you work for me.”
*”I’m out looking for fun.”

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TV Diary | Luck: “Episode 2”

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TV Diary | Luck – Episode 1.02 – “Episode 2” – Original Airdate: 2/5/12

Episode Grade: B+

I’m relatively certain of two things when it comes to Luck. First, this is exceptional, artisanal-level television. Secondly, I have no earthly idea what’s going on most of the time. David Milch’s shows are known for their sphinx-like dialogue and Luck is no different. The language of the show is often inscrutable and, when you combine the difficult dialogue with a world in which most of the audience likely has little to no knowledge of in horse racing, it’s probably why Luck has had a difficult time in the ratings. They’re low even for an HBO series [1] but since HBO renewed the show for a second season the day after its first episode we don’t have to worry about it going away anytime soon, which is nice because it’s becoming crystal clear that the learning curve on Luck is going to be steep even as it’s a thrill to watch. From what I can decipher, it appears that there are three main threads – for lack of a better way of putting things – running through Luck at this point so let’s examine “Episode 2” from that standpoint. There was definitely more forward movement with Ace’s storyline in “Episode 2” and Dustin Hoffman was in what seemed like at least twice as many scenes. We got some backstory on why Ace was in jail in the first place [2] and it looks like whatever play Ace is trying to pull with DeRossi (Alan Rosenberg) and the newly-introduced Cohen (Ted Levine, Silence Of The Lambs) [3] – and from as best that I can tell he’s pitching trying to introduce casino and table games to the track while taking advantage of the track’s gambling allowances for legality reasons – could be a type of make-good for Ace taking the fall in the drug bust as DeRossi and Cohen are involved with the former associate, who I believe Ace referred to as Michael. We also get the first meeting between Ace and Escalante and I’d be surprised if this doesn’t end up as the major conflict of the first season. There’s no exact reason that I can point to but I just get that sense watching the two play off of each other when taking into consideration each man’s standing in their respective worlds. The first two episodes have shown that, although Escalante is more than capable of putting on a welcoming face when it suits his needs, there are many at the track who seem to be terrified of the man, just as Ace is alternately feared and respected in his own orbit. It would then stand to reason that these two large-egoed men, when put into close proximity with one another, would butt heads. I have to believe that’s coming, and coming soon. Thread number two would be Marcus, Jerry, and their merry band of gamblers, here shown in the wake of their pick-six win in the pilot. Judging from what we see with Jerry, Renzo, and Lonnie, they have indeed cashed in their ticket and the three men are enjoying their newfound winnings in various ways, all to the consternation of ringleader Marcus [4]. It’s not like, two episodes into Luck’s run, we really know a whole lot about these characters just yet but the way they find pleasure in their spoils reveal a lot about each of them. As The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff points out in his review of “Episode 2,” Jerry takes his winnings and throws them right down the drain in service of his poker habit – seen here losing to a cocky Asian man on more than one occasion – while Renzo attempts to take his own money and re-invest it in a horse for he, Jerry, and Marcus to own as a team. Stark difference between the two men there. And Lonnie… I’m still trying to make heads or tails of what happened to Lonnie. Something about an insurance policy and hookers [5] who tried to kill him to collect on the insurance? No clue, really. The uniting thread here is that Marcus is being paranoid and is pissed at all three for flaunting their winnings, presumably due to IRS issues. I liked the forward movement in Ace’s story but the quartet of gamblers are holding the most interest for me through two episodes. The final orbit – and probably most difficult to decipher – is Nick Nolte’s Walter Smith preparing the colt of a former champion that he trained for competition. Nolte seems to be the delivery system for some of Milch’s most difficult monologues so far and the only thing I could really make out in “Episode 2” is that he seems to be pushing Joey to find representation for Rosie despite his telling her that she won’t be riding the colt. In all, “Episode 2” began the process of moving the season’s narrative forward even as it remained as enigmatic as ever.

[1] In averaging around a half-million per episode, that would make Luck one of HBO’s lower rated shows. For reference, its biggest hit – True Blood – usually averages a tick above five million viewers an episode.
[2] He took the fall in a drug bust for an associate. As he lays it out to Gus, a former partner of his stashed some dope in a condo that he and Ace shared and Ace’s grandson was ultimately arrested for possession of the drugs. Ace took the blame in part to save his grandson but when asked by Gus why he didn’t just roll on the associate, Ace tells him that he’s never ratted in his life.
[3] Which was yet another bit of great casting. Levine is an excellent, excellent character actor who fits this show perfectly.
[4] Who, truth be told, is developing into my favorite character in the series and can – two episodes in – be best described as Luck’s Sipowicz or Swearengen.
[5] One of whom was none other than Dawson Leery’s mom.

Miscellany:
*Milch has long structured his series so that each episode is one day in the life of its characters and that hasn’t changed with Luck. This was also the second episode to end with a conversation between Ace and Gus in Ace’s hotel room so it looks like this could very well develop into a running theme.
*There’s a definite child-like, simple quality to Dennis Farina’s Gus. From pointing out random observations at the track – “Hey, Ace… there’s that goat. The one with the nuts the size of pumpkins.” – to the knowing look that Hoffman shoots Farina as he’s rooting on the horse in the race that’s almost like a parent watching a child, the way that the Gus character is being portrayed and drawn is very interesting.
*Didn’t the pilot establish that Ace couldn’t be seen around the track because of his criminal record? Or am I wrong?
*Having a worker vacuuming in the background during the daytime at the casino that Jerry frequents was a nice touch that adds to the pathetic nature of his addiction.
*I loved the editing of the horse race starting against the beginning of Jerry’s poker game. Very smart choice.
*I also saw Dawson’s mom’s boobs. So, there’s that.
*As I’m probably one of the ten people who watched Michael Mann’s Robbery Homicide Division back in 2003 on CBS, I liked seeing Barry Shabaka Henley turn up as Ace’s parole officer. Henley also played Castillo in Mann’s big-screen Miami Vice adaptation in 2006 and worked on NYPD Blue for a few episodes so he’s well versed in both Mann and Milch.
*”My mental adroitness is dulled by this constant negativity.” If that isn’t the perfect example of Milch dialogue, I don’t know what is.
*”Why don’t you show me how you take a raspberry douche?” Seriously. What the hell does that even mean?
*”I have difficulty if someone’s looking.” “What did you do inside?” “People made adjustments.”
*”Looking half dead.” “Jeez… I feel like a million bucks.”
*”Keep it up. I’ll slap the slant off your fucking face.”
*”Won money. Head up ass. As good as flashing it up on a Snoopy blimp.”
*”The hook is sunk.”
*”I need a vacation. I understood nearly everything you just said.”
*”You’re gonna end up broke and alone whether you know it or not.”
*”And I thought you liked your cock between our titties.”
*”You know, for a guy who won’t you don’t look none too happy.”
*”You know what breaking legs sounds like? Branches snapping.”
*”Don’t ever knock this fucking country to me!”

Written by jeremylikestv

February 24, 2012 at 1:39 am

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.”

Written by jeremylikestv

February 9, 2012 at 11:00 am

Morning Links: 1/27/12

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Welcome to a new feature here on the blog, the Morning Links. Each weekday, I’ll provide you with some interesting television-related news items culled from the various TV websites I frequent on a regular basis with a slight bit of commentary attached. Pretty straightforward – no fuss, no muss. Light news day as I’m pretty much scraping for content, but the links don’t care. They just want to be loved:

*Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall is on a nice interview streak here this week, this time sitting down with two of the brains behind the new HBO horseracing series Luck – head writer David Milch and executive producer Michael Mann. Needless to say, with those two involved, Dustin Hoffman taking his first television lead role, and people like Dennis Farina and Nick Nolte among the cast, this is one that I’m really, really looking forward to and even more so after seeing the pilot a month and a half ago when HBO previewed it in full following the Boardwalk Empire finale. It premieres on Sunday night so set your DVRs and in case you’re wondering, yes, Milch does seemingly talk like he writes dialogue. It’s kind of weird, but in a cool way.

*Via Warming Glow, here’s a pretty goddamn awesome four-minute video spanning the entirety of Breaking Bad’s run thus far. If you’re not up-to-date beware – spoilers ho. And if you’re not up-to-date, shame on you because this is one of the best television shows ever made and you’re missing it. Also? “I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS!”

*Part three of The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff episode-by-episode interview with Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa is up. Only one more day of me pimping this interview series. Promise.

*Alias fan fave Marshall (known as Kevin Weisman in real life) is set to join the cast of NBC’s very intriguing Awake, according to EW’s James Hibberd. That is, he’ll be joining the cast whenever NBC decides to get around to actually scheduling Awake. I mean, really, NBC – you find room for Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler sitcoms along with a television version of The Firm that no one ever asked for yet can’t find room for Community or Awake, the show routinely listed by critics as the best pilot of the 2011 fall season by far? But then, this is why you’re a fourth-place network.

*Yesterday was apparently Gossip Girl Day in New York City by official proclamation by NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg as part of a celebration of the CW series hitting the 100-episode milestone. Because of course it was.