Watching the pilot for David Milch’s upcoming HBO series “Luck,” I sort of felt the way the assortment of characters in the show are supposed to feel in their designated roles depicting life on the racetrack. I’m not sure where everything is heading and some of it isn’t pleasant to witness, but I can’t turn away from it. Bearing some similarities to gritty racing movies, such as “Boots Malone” and “The Killing,” Luck depicts the beauty, drama, and poetry of racing one minute and then quickly takes you into its underbelly, exposing all the warts and blemishes.
It even had the obligatory breakdown scene, but took it a step further by showing the compassion of the jockey, who sat with the ill-fated creature lying on the ground. If that wasn’t enough to grab the viewer by the gut, we also were given an extreme close-up shot of the horse’s eye (looking almost sad and bewildered) to give the scene a “Yearling” and “Old Yeller” effect. All that was missing was Bambi’s mother. But, despite providing fuel for animal activists, it did bring a chilling and horrific aspect of the sport to the screen with empathy and tenderness. Was it really needed? Probably not, but sometimes writers cannot refrain from using old formulas for sensationalistic value.
The characters were all there and all were real, from the sleazy gangsters to the degenarate horseplayers; and from the jockey and his bloodhound agent to the grizzled, hardboot trainer, as well as the shady trainer attempting to keep his live longshot under wraps in order to cash a bet. Of course, there is the young, unproven horse no one knows anything about who has greatness written all over him. To help move the plot along, his trainer (played by an effective Nick Nolte) talks extensively to him, telling him how great he’s going to be. This obviously was done so the jock’s agent skulking in the shedrow could overhear him and start smelling roses. This was the tree falling in the forest that needed someone to see it or else it didn’t happen.
It was great seeing Dustin Hoffman reliving his days as Dutch Schultz in “Billy Bathgate,” and while he played his character, Ace Bernstein, with a heavy hand in the brief time he was on screen, his presence added a great deal to the show, especially luring in the non-racing audience. Bernstein, recently released from prison, evokes images of the nefarious characters of the past who used a front to hide their ownership of racehorses. And of course, any show or movie moves up several notches with the addition of Dennis Farina, who plays Bernstein’s front. While Gary Stevens, who has a small role, was effective playing George Woolf in “Seabiscuit,” he has matured as an actor and is much more natural and polished. Add a pretty veterinarian and exercise rider and you’ve pretty much come up with a well-rounded roster to appeal to everyone’s tastes.
Although the pilot was more of a kaleidoscope of subplots and images, enhanced by some fantastic photography, it basically acted as a scorecard for future episodes, saving the viewers the trouble of having to sort through all the players once the series actually begins.
Like all of Milch’s shows, with its rough and edgy dialogue, Luck is at times disturbing, but you can’t take your eyes off it. Now that all the characters have been established, there is no telling how good Luck can and will be.