Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

On TV: Luck

Strong Out of the Gate

With Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and the masterful Deadwood, creator David Milch has a rightful claim as the greatest world creator in the history of television. He takes full advantage of the medium, using the length of the televised format to lay out exquisitely detailed domains and populate them with a panorama of compelling characters who succeed and fail within the world’s finely defined parameters.

After tackling the concrete jungle of urban law enforcement and the scratch-built starter civilizations of the Wild West, Milch has now set his sights on the horse track in HBO’s Luck. A successful horse owner himself (he has two Breeder’s Cups on his mantle), it’s a world Milch knows intimately, and one where he clearly recognizes the potential to condense high-stakes human endeavors in a micro-universe where the main event starts and finishes in a matter of minutes.

And judging by the pilot episode aired last week on HBO, the project has the potential for brilliance.

There is a hint of vastness to the premier of Luck which can only be achieved through television.  At least a dozen primary characters are set up and given motivations and faults that will surely take more than season to flesh out in full. They are so well-sketched, their situations so compelling, that is easy to forget that the bulk of their actions and concerns revolve around horse races.

But Milch does not get so grounded into his characters that he neglects the visceral impact of the races themselves. They are at once elegant and brutal, with majestic animals pounding their hooves against the earth with the violence of thunder. The hopes and dreams of the people who dwell within this universe ride on the speed and minor changes in direction of creatures that have no idea what kinds of fortunes they can build of the lives they can ruin. Milch knows the eternal allure of sport, the way it boils lifetimes of effort and struggle into short win-or-lose displays of competitive excellence. And when you add the ever-fascinating gambling world on top of it, it makes for some of the most rousing television I’ve seen in recent years.

Michael Mann is an excellent choice to direct the pilot and establish the show’s visual palette. Much like Deadwood, Luck is a primarily a tough guy’s showcase, and no one films smart guys with large egos and devastating flaws better than Mann.  At his and the show’s disposal is one of the best male casts ever assembled on TV, with Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman in particular reminding us that they are still two of the most powerful screen presences around. From a motley crew of professional gamblers to a wunderkind Cajun jockey to a former track emperor just released from prison, these characters all come out of the gate and grab our interest while we know their stories will take a long time to tell, as they do in all of Milch’s work.

And if the show builds on the promise of its fantastic pilot, I’ll be along for the whole ride.

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