And they’re off! Early thoughts on HBO’s ‘Luck’

Though HBO aired the pilot of “Luck” last night, the David Milch/Michael Mann horse racing drama won’t have its proper premiere until January 29, and the channel has treated last night’s airing as a sneak preview to start preliminary conversation, and little more. Copies weren’t set out to critics, though we’re apparently going to get all 9 first season episodes later this month, and there aren’t even publicity stills available yet. (The picture accompanying this review was taken off of itself.)

Because I’ll be getting more episodes soon, because the real premiere is so far away, and because a Milch show tends to take a few episodes to fully establish itself, I’d like to wait until late January to offer a proper review, but I have a few preliminary impressions of the pilot, coming up just as soon as I know what Jim Beam is for…

The first time I met David Milch, he took me to the track. Writing is his profession, but horses – and betting on horses – is perhaps his deepest passion. “Luck” is the show Milch has been waiting a lifetime to make. Now, there’s a danger in making a show about a subject you know so much more intimately than the average viewer – especially when you’re a writer like Milch, whose dialogue isn’t always easy to follow even in a more familiar context – that you’ll just treat too many things as easily understood when they really aren’t. And there were definitely a few moments here and there in the “Luck” pilot where I was struggling to keep up with the plot. (My main point of confusion was whether the horse the Cajun jockey rode in the last race was Nick Nolte’s or not; obviously, it turned out not to be.)

But I don’t think it was any more opaque than, say, the “Deadwood” pilot. Easy as it is to forget now in its position among the HBO Holy Trinity, reaction was very mixed to “Deadwood” at first, and it wasn’t until the fourth episode or so where most people felt that series took shape, and Swearengen’s negotiation with Brom Garrett and Tim Driscoll was at least as convoluted as the four degenerate gamblers’ plan to win the Pick 6.

And while I imagine it’ll be at least a few episodes before I feel comfortable with all the lingo, I thought the pilot did a terrific job of capturing the atmosphere of the track and the people who hang around it. Though Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte are the big names, and will no doubt be more prominent in later episodes, it almost felt like the stars of the show this week were Jason Gedrick and Kevin Dunn (whose early grasp of Milch-speak reminded me very much of both Ian McShane and Dennis Franz), and all the scenes with their quartet were funny and sad and completely engaging, even if I couldn’t follow all of it.

Where I was really impressed, though, was Michael Mann’s direction. The cliche is that TV is a writer’s medium, and film a director’s medium. “Luck” is trying to be both, pairing one of the small screen’s all-time great wordsmiths with one of the most meticulous, impressive visual stylists in either movies or television. Various reports suggest the combination was predictably volatile off-camera, but the end result was very impressive. I’ve seen a lot of fictional horse races, but none felt quite as intimate or powerful as Mann’s work here. The horses are every bit as important to the show as most of the human characters – the pilot’s big emotional climax involves the 8 horse suffering a bad break in mid-race and having to be put down – and while Milch has no ability to put elaborate sentences into their mouths, Mann found a way to capture the individuality and strong will that so many of the humans ascribe to the horses.

It looked great, it sounded great, and Hoffman and Dennis Farina established a quick, entertaining rapport as Ace Bernstein and his driver/front Gus. Obviously, it could make a very wrong turn into a “John from Cincinnati” within a few episodes, but what I saw last night made me very, very eager for that HBO care package to arrive.

What did everybody else think? Did the sneak preview make you more or less excited for the series to debut late next month?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at