HBO’s “Luck” is about the thunderous glories and moral cruddiness associated with the world of thoroughbred horse racing, yet my lasting thought is not one of sunny Southern California racetracks but of ski slopes, with this question: In addition to rating the content of a new TV series, should there also be some cautionary signage about its degree of difficulty? If so, “Luck” should be labeled with a double black diamond (skier code for expert-only slopes) to warn viewers before they plummet down its dauntingly steep learning curve.
From the first episode of “Luck,” it will feel as if you’ve joined a drama that is already several episodes in progress, perhaps even well into its second season, set so completely in the specific realm of horse racing, betting, training and corruption. Something that you might know a little about, or, as likely, know nothing at all.
In either case, “Luck” leaves you in its stylishly kicked-up dirt. It’s no wonder that one character, oblivious to an exciting twist of fate during the show’s initial race shouts out, “WILL SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT’S HAPPENING?!”
But that’s usually the case. The last HBO series I recall launching with pleasurable ease was “Treme” and perhaps the hokey “True Blood,” while everything else has required the viewer’s sharp attention to detail and willingness to just watch and wait. By now, every new show on the network (and its imitators) lets complexity speak to verisimilitude. Life is tangled, and you don’t just walk in and figure out who all the people are and what their deal is. (If so, then you’re watching CBS.) HBO’s most significant shows — “The Sopranos”; “The Wire” — achieved success by requiring rapt viewing, to the point of staring and even rewinding certain scenes until the show’s mood and momentum carried you off to a satisfied place.
But there is a limit. “Luck” is suffused with brilliant acting and amazing scenes, but in a few unfortunate ways, it remains impenetrable almost until its last hour. By that point, a lot of potential viewers will have wandered off.
Beginning Sunday night for an initial run of nine episodes, all of which I watched in a two-day binge, “Luck” has been groomed to a shine, a handsome thoroughbred of high-cable lineage, sired by “Deadwood’s” David Milch and muscled up by its executive producer, “Miami Vice’s” Michael Mann. It has big stars (Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina) and an intensely watchable supporting cast (among them Richard Kind, John Ortiz and Jill Hennessy). It has that vicarious seediness and rotting of the flawed soul that we’ve come to expect from the network’s dramas.
Hoffman plays Chester “Ace” Bernstein, released from prison (it takes forever to find out what put him there) and ready to go back to work (it takes forever to find out what he really does, legitimately and otherwise).
He is greeted by his loyal right hand, Gus Demitriou (Farina, giving a career-topping performance here), who has been busily prepping for his boss’s release — procuring a permanent suite at the Beverly Hilton and purchasing a thoroughbred at Santa Anita Park.
Santa Anita Park would be the huge racetrack and horse-training grounds east of Pasadena. Do you know that? It would help immensely if you knew that and also how to read a racing form. But then, that’s “Luck.” HBO sent TV critics four pages of glossary terms in hopes that we could keep up.
Ortiz plays trainer Turo Escalante, who runs his stables with a tight fist and trains Bernstein’s horse. Hennessy (“Crossing Jordan”) plays Esclante’s veterinarian and tentative lover.
A few stables down, Nolte plays Walt Smith, a cranky old Kentucky horse trainer who has moved to California with a horse named Gettin’ Up Morning, the male offspring of a former champion. Old Walt has also come hiding a few secrets and suppressed rage, which Nolte loads with extra salt and grizzle.
At the risk of abusing the word “meanwhile,” let me also point out a few other story tracks: Among the jockeys, one (“Seabiscuit’s” Gary Stevens as Ronnie) struggles with drug addiction; a rookie hotshot (Tom Payne as Leon) fights to keep his weight below 115 while his Irish girlfriend (Kerry Condon as Rosie) get her big break, moving from horse exercise girl to top rider. Richard Kind (“Mad About You”; “Spin City”) plays pathetic Joe, the jockeys’ needy, stuttering agent who desperately scrambles to get them a big ride. It’s a hammy role that succeeds purely on Kind’s determined performance.
“Luck’s” easiest and most engaging entry point comes via a quartet of sad-sack railbirds (played by Kevin Dunn, Jason Gedrick, Ian Hart, Richie Coster) who strike it big on a Pick 6 bet and buy a horse of their own. One is in a wheelchair, one has a raging poker addiction and the other two are “Luck’s” Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and through their bumbling we learn the basics of the biz. The entire show could have been about them and still remained a meditation on luck’s elusive and most humiliating aspects.
And what of Hoffman? In excruciating layers peeled back ever so slowly, his Ace Bernstein begins to fully emerge with a scheme to control the introduction of slot machine gambling to the track. Eventually, we learn some of his secrets. Eventually, there’s a body to be dismembered and dumped in the Pacific Ocean, and that is probably where HBO’s most loyal viewers, forever in search of their next “Sopranos” fix, will let out a sigh of both horror and relief. By the last episode, Ace has morphed into something more like “Breaking Bad’s” Gustavo Fring.
Yet Ace is not easily read as a criminal or even a sinister presence. He loves horses. He loves rules and order. His codependence with Farina’s character makes for some of “Luck’s” best scenes — two old men reliant on each other for companionship and survival.
There’s a lot to like in “Luck,” which is not the same as saying it’s entirely enjoyable. I’d call it tediously fascinating — however contradictory that may seem — and not required viewing.
Having only attended two horse races in my life, and not terribly thrilled with the show’s Sansabelt set of craggy and despicable characters, I thought I could subsist on the beauty of the horses alone. The races are thrillingly shot. The camera adores every ripple of the animals’ muscles. The steam that rises from their gorgeous bodies during a dawn bath. They are stroked and adored and magnificent. You’ll want to keep carrot sticks in your barn-coat pocket with hopes that they’ll nudge their noses through your high-def screen.
But the first episode also includes a snapped leg during a race, quickly followed by an emergency vet’s large hypodermic needle full of poison. This show necessarily puts its remarkable beasts at the same mortal risk as its deplorable humans, which means animal lovers may also find themselves making a quick exit. “Luck” is hard on everyone.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.