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HBO’s New Show Has Good Credentials, But Is That Enough?

Last Friday, the New York Times ran a double-page-spread ad for the new HBO series Luck. It featured quotes like “Sumptuous,” “Addictive,” “Compelling,” “Brilliant,” “Astonishing,” “Breathtaking.” (You know the sort of thing, you could write it yourself.) But after three episodes of Luck, I’m still hedging my bets and crossing my fingers—or just waiting to hear a line clearly.

The show has plenty of credentials and promise. It was created by David Milch; it has Michael Mann as an executive producer (he directed the pilot); and another producer is Dustin Hoffman, who also plays one of the lead parts—Ace Bernstein, a guy just out of prison, a major operator with a rough edge, who has some sort of plan to take over a race course and add on a casino. At the moment, that is only one of the plotlines. Another involves four race-track deadbeats (an engaging group) who win over $2 million in the first episode on a pick-six bet; yet another has Nick Nolte as an elderly trainer with a promising horse and a female exercise rider from Ireland who wants to be a real jockey; and then there’s a trainer, Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), who shows every sign of being an intriguing rascal. All of this takes place at the Santa Anita track with lustrous, beautiful (you can write this yourself) shots of horses—bay, black, chestnut, all glossy in the sun and their sweat—with the jocks in their gaudy silks. If it was good enough for Degas, it’s good enough for Michael Mann, and the horse-racing footage is movie-like in the best sense, even if a lot of the time you can see that the horses are being reined in hard in the racing scenes. That didn’t prevent two deaths among the horses, which has attracted inevitable controversy, although experts know that two horses are put down at a track somewhere every day.

I’m watching the show, and I can feel its interest creeping over me in a sluggish way. But still I’m not sure. All our experience suggests that on these series the people in charge have only a vague idea of where they’re going with their narrative arc. In other words, the writing can be no more than a few lengths ahead of the episodes, and sometimes that crisis pushes the action into hysteria, or standstill. So the venture needs luck or confidence. Another problem is that it’s one more men’s club—though the appealing Jill Hennessy is present as a vet and she has already performed one intimate bodily procedure on a horse. Let’s hope it’s with a human next time. Several of these characters are interesting, and the overall atmosphere of gambling is invariably effective. But race-track stories are not common, and that may be why the show started out with a package of educational promos about the terminology of the race-track and the process of racing. I just wish the sound people had been given a promo about how-to-make-every-word-clear-and-audible.

I understand that David Milch has tried to make TV talk as natural and awkward and blurry as life, from Hill Street Blues through NYPD Blue to Deadwood. But there’s something else at work, I think. The current attitude to naturalistic talk is that we should not be able to hear everything (as in life). This is a new, technological version of Method actors being averse to sounding eloquent, articulate, or clear. So Marlon Brando and his heirs muttered, sighed, grunted and mumbled, because they were feeling the true difficulty of talking, instead of sounding like actors who had learned their lines and been rehearsed so many times that they no longer hear their own words. But plays, movie and television are not life; at best they are life-like. And characters and scripts have been conceived and delivered so that we can hear them. As we listen to music, we don’t want or expect bum notes because the players feel the difficulty of playing the real score or because musical accuracy might not be true to their sense memory. When I hear talk in a story I want to know what’s been said.

There is another possibility—that I am going deaf—but I think there’s a policy in Luck, in the writing and the sound work, to be casual or elusive over whether we get it or not. In the field of mass entertainment that is a very odd approach, and it only adds to the difficulty of placing so many indistinct characters. I can imagine a writer as skilled as Milch drawing all of his plots together to make one rope, and I can feel the shadow of corruption and criminal exploitation hovering over Ace’s plans. What’s more, the promos for the show have revealed that Michael Gambon is still to come—he’s in four of the nine episodes in the first series—and he looks to be in one of his splashy nasty moods (encouraged by the thought that he’s doing it for America). Maybe it all gets clearer in the second season.

But for the moment, I can’t make up my mind whether Nolte knows what he’s doing—this is often a prelude to one of his great performances. For that matter, I’m not sure how we’re meant to read Dustin Hoffman, an actor who is now many years away from his best work. I hope Jill Hennessy is going to have more to do; I want to see the female jockey (Kerry Condon) developed; but I’ve had enough of Dennis Farina, who plays Ace’s gabby sidekick—he must have been in half the low-life shows from the last twenty years. Plus there’s the difficulty that so many of the horses look alike. 

So I’m not picking a winner or loser yet. Episode three has just played, without much more progress or clarity: Joan Allen has appeared briefly in an elevator; Escalante and the vet have a thing going; the deadbeats continue to be the most interesting people in sight, and they have managed to buy a horse—of courses, the horses are still best of all; meanwhile, Hoffman and Farina had a conversation at the end of the episode where they both seemed to be falling asleep. I know the feeling.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.