Luck begins in a prison, and you get the feeling it may well end up in there again. The opening scenes of David Milch’s new series follow Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as he’s released. When he’s picked up by his Greek-American driver Gus (Dennis Farina), it is immediately clear that Ace’s time inside has not dulled his taste for self-enriching schemes. He’s on the make, like everyone else in the series.
Ace’s plans this time center on the currently struggling Santa Anita Park, which he conceives as the focal point of a potentially lucrative casino complex redevelopment plan. He meets with men in slick suits in empty restaurants, offering roles for them as backers and/or fronts for his proposal and rewarding their understandable resistance with prompt tongue-lashings.
Ace also seems to have more than one branding iron in this particular fire, however. Gus met with an unexpected windfall while his boss was in the slammer (his boss likely had something to do with that) and has purchased an expensive and promising thoroughbred from Ireland, now being trained by Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), based at Santa Anita. Through the prickly Escalante, we see what goes on behind the scenes at the track, from the stables (jockeys played by Tom Payne and Kerry Condon) to the grandstand, where four gambling lowlifes of various stripes unite behind a pick six betting schematic formulated by the compulsive Jerry (Jason Gedrick), and wind up splitting nearly $2 million in winnings.
This is the general outline of where things stand after an episode or two of Luck, but many of the details remain fuzzy. Milch’s Deadwood is renowned for the rough poetry of its dialogue, an ornate chiaroscuro of arcane lexis and ingeniously arranged profanity that could veil plot developments and character motivations from the gaze of the uninitiated. The people in Luck express themselves with similar overwrought intricacy, their speech tangled in the nigh-impenetrable jargon of the stables and the betting stalls. The dialogue does sing at moments, especially when filtered through Hoffman’s tense exactitude and the gravelly, haunted mumbling of Nick Nolte as track veteran Walter Smith. But more often it is neither as expressive nor as appropriate as the dialogue style of Deadwood, and is instead distracting.
Even a perceptive viewer can miss important elements in this linguistic slurry. Take the gamblers’ choices for the Pick 6, a racetrack wager wherein bettors select the winning horses in six consecutive races, a very difficult bet to win with prize money often in the millions. It’s made clear that the picks focus on Escalante’s horses, but the reason why (the trainer is easing the entrants through practice trials to drive down the odds on them) is buried in the avalanche of gambling slang or phrasing that just tries too hard. (Someone accuses one of the Pick 6 winners of breaking his promises, “Like our Muslim President from Kenya.”) The precise details of Gus’ acquisition of the Irish thoroughbred and whose interests in particular are being served by that purchase are murky as well, though that may simply be the deferred revelations of storytelling at work.
At the same time, Luck is visually brilliant. The premiere is directed by Michael Mann with his trademark lustrous immediacy, and the series follows his vivid example after the first hour. The shots of horses and hay and stable hands are framed to evoke a strong sense of place. The wealthy can practically admire the reflections of their egos in gleaming car hoods and bar counters, while the striving rabble ponder their self-loathing in opaque formica surfaces.
Luck’s pulse quickens towards a beat of transcendence in its racing scenes, however. Thundering hooves and urging spectators gird the soundtrack as up-thrust dirt, jockeys inclined vertiginously forward, and glistening horses all hurtle across the screen. For these all-too-brief moments of sheer visceral exhilaration, all of the related backroom machinations, self-destructive manipulation, and blithe dishonesty of the characters seem completely justified.
The show’s greedy humans are seen in these fleeting moments of primal action to be covetous not of material wealth or even of power and influence, but of a simple proximity to a species of dazzling athletic prowess and glory. At the end of every race, the viewer exhales, looks upon the faces of the horse track faithful, and thinks, “So that’s why they do it.” This may not be why Luck does it, exactly, but unleashing such bracing content makes the less assured material of the show much more palatable as well.