One of the great things about art, if you’re good at what you do – and few in TV history have been better at it than David Milch and Michael Mann, the chief writer and director, respectively, behind HBO’s horseracing drama “Luck” – is that you can use your art to take something you care deeply about and make other people care deeply too, even if they never expected to.
I have no sentimental attachment to horseracing and could only vaguely follow many of the show’s early storylines about Pick Six line-ups and claiming races. Yet I became caught up in the world of the track, and the passions of the people who gravitate towards it, thanks to the artistry of Milch (“Deadwood,” “NYPD Blue”), Mann (“Miami Vice,” “Crime Story”) and their many gifted collaborators, including a cast headed by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.
“Luck” (which begins its 9-episode season Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO) is a show about a sport that has seen far, far better days. The Santa Anita racetrack where most of the action takes place is usually 3/4 empty. The people who hang around the track – trainers and vets, gamblers and owners, reporters and jockeys – all can tell that they should probably be plying their trade somewhere else, and yet there is nowhere else they would rather be.
(Some mild spoilers follow, but most of them refer to the show’s first episode, which HBO aired as a sneak preview in mid-December and will be airing again on Sunday night.)
Hoffman plays Chester “Ace” Bernstein, legendary fixer who has just emerged from a prison stretch determined to get revenge on the men who robbed him of three years of his life, but only inasmuch as his scheme doesn’t interfere with Pint of Plain, the beautiful, gentle horse he bought to race at Santa Anita.
Because Ace is on parole, he’s not legally allowed to own a horse, and we learn that he engineered an elaborate, costly ruse so that his driver/bodyguard Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina, who was discovered by Mann for “Thief” and later fronted “Crime Story”) could buy Pint of Plain for him. And the longer “Luck” goes on, the more obvious it becomes that most of the people hanging around Santa Anita have contorted themselves in some irrational way to get there and stay there.
When a quartet of degenerate gamblers led by expert handicapper Jerry (Jason Gedrick) and his dyspeptic friend Marcus (Kevin Dunn) wins big one day, they pour their cash into subsidizing a lifestyle that barely acknowledges the world away from the track. Former Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Ronnie (played by real-life champion jockey Gary Stevens, who continues on the promise he showed as an actor in “Seabiscuit”) has turned to booze and painkillers to deal with the countless injuries and heartaches of his profession, but he can’t walk away.
Neither can Walter Smith (Nolte), an aging trainer still tortured by the death of one of his horses, and who has now poured his entire mind, body and soul into getting its son, Gettin’ Up Morning, ready to race. Nolte gets to deliver a number of riveting speeches to the horse (as we saw on “Deadwood,” Milch is fond of characters monologuing to animals, objects and/or people that can’t talk back), and he gives himself over so physically to the role that it appears on a number of occasions that Walter may keel over dead in an instant if things go poorly for his prize animal.
It’s a race involving that horse in the show’s fourth episode that brings the series together. Like a lot of HBO dramas – including the all-time great ones like “Deadwood,” “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” – “Luck” takes a few hours to establish its world, characters and rules, and there are some stumbles in the early chapters.(*) But when Gettin’ Up Morning races in front of the small crowd, “Luck” – and its love of this dirty, obsolete, addictive world – comes to life. The writing, direction, editing and acting all come together to paint a beautiful picture of why these people don’t want to leave, and why you should stay there, too.
(*) In particular, there’s another trainer, Turo Escalante, played by John Ortiz, whose paranoia and deliberately obtuse manner of speech makes some of the plot in the early episodes especially hard to decipher, even for those who might speak fluent Milch.
Television is generally known as a writers’ medium, but in this case, the magic feels at least 50/50 between words and pictures. Mann directed the pilot, and does a remarkable job of capturing both what’s alien about the horses (the close-ups of their eyes frequently make them look insane, when in fact they’re just being horses) but also what seems so human and understandable about them. (Hoffman has a romantic storyline opposite Joan Allen, but it’s clear that Ace is never more in love nor at peace than when he’s around Pint of Plain.) Later episodes were directed by an impressive lineup (Phillip Noyce, for instance, directs that pivotal fourth episode) who continue the visual template established by Mann, particularly in the race scenes. There’s at least one race per episode, and they should get repetitive after a while, particularly since most revolve around one of three horses, but Mann and company put you right into the middle of the action, and each race is hypnotic in one way or another.(**)
(**) From time to time, I’ll talk about The “Studio 60” Problem, where a show keeps telling you someone or something is incredible, when what the viewer can see suggests mediocrity at best. The races on “Luck” – the one in episode 4 in particular – do not suffer from this problem. They play with every bit the drama and energy that’s reflected on the faces of the characters watching from the stands.
Hoffman is the big name, and gives an impressively buttoned-down performance. (Ace trusts no one but Gus, and perhaps likes no one but the horse, and therefore plays it tight with the rest of the world.) But even though most of the A-list talent – also including Farina, Allen and Michael Gambon as a delightfully profane mobster – is collected in Ace’s corner of the series, that storyline feels largely separate from the rest of the action. There are different groups at the track who largely stick to themselves – the gamblers with each other, the jockeys with stammering agent Joey (Richard Kind), Escalante with patient horse doctor Jo (Jill Hennessy) – but all ultimately seem connected to one another, where Ace only becomes a part of the world when he sets his revenge campaign aside for a bit to swoon over Pint of Plain. It’s not a bad show he’s in; just a different one.
Because Hoffman and Farina are off to one side, and because Nolte’s best scenes tend to feature just Walter and Gettin’ Up Morning, the heart of the show unexpectedly belongs to Gedrick and Dunn, who are tremendous. All of the characters are in some ways avatars for Milch’s obsessions and addictions, but those two (and Ritchie Coster and Ian Hart as their more simple-minded pals) stand out as the most human, vulnerable and empathetic. Jerry deludes himself into believing that his skill at picking the ponies somehow extends to all forms of gambling, and goes on long self-destructive poker benders, while the way Marcus bends his self-loathing into a sarcastic suit of armor will be familiar to any Andy Sipowicz fan.
The show isn’t perfect, but is far closer to “Deadwood” than to Milch’s last HBO series, the impenetrable (but occasionally fascinating) “John from Cincinnati,” which mixed surfing with a complicated plot that was about (I think) angels coming to Earth to prepare us for the Second Coming. There’s an element of the divine to “Luck” as well – the horses generate their own dust clouds that, mixed with the evocative Santa Anita light, makes it look like each has his or her own halo – and a sense that for these people, the track is itself a church, a place for them to turn when the rest of the world doesn’t make sense, a place to channel their demons and try to feel whole, a place where life is still capable of wonder.
But the spiritual elements here are just subtext, and part of a vastly more coherent and cohesive narrative than anything Milch did on “John.” I think Milch knew the story he wanted to tell with “John” but didn’t know how to tell it in a way that the rest of us could see what was in his head. The world of the track is one he knows so intimately that “Luck” ran the risk of being too inside in a different way, a story by an expert accessible and interesting only to other experts. But it’s clear and engaging and moving to this novice. I may still not understand all the details after 9 hours, but when the starting gate opens and the horses take off, I see what Walter and Ace and Marcus and the rest are seeing – and with the talent assembled in front of and behind the camera, that’s more than enough.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com