"Luck" Review: Horse Racing Has Its Ups And Downs
You might have seen the poster for the show and thought it was a show about Dustin Hoffman and ponies, and to some extent you’d be right.
But “Luck” really is about gambling and the behind the scenes action that the insiders delve into.
It also asks a lot from its audience. It wants—no, demands that you understand these intricacies essential to gambling like the slang the bettors use.
This is risky for many reasons but mainly because if you’re like me, you know next to nothing about what “the vig” is or about thoroughbred horses.
On paper, the show is supposed to be about Dustin Hoffman’s character Ace Bernstein, a veteran of gambling circles who’s fresh off a stint in prison. He wants to get back into the game in a big way. Namely, turning the racetrack into a casino.
Ace’s best scene is when he is outraged at being second-guessed as an informant for using a recorder (which he uses to remember things): “After I do three years, you suspect me? I take a fall protecting how many people? I have a tape recorder, you have qualms?...Basta? What are you watching old movies? Don’t basta me!”
But Hoffman takes a back seat to what’s going on at the racetrack, at least during much of the pilot. A motley crew of bettors put up money on a “Pick Six” and much to their astonishment, they win $2.7 million. How this affects Ace is yet to be seen.
The show handles cinematography and dialogue extremely well; but this shouldn’t be a surprise. The show was created and written by David Milch, best known for running “Deadwood,” which remains one of my favorite shows of all-time. Milch’s dialogue is at its finest in the smaller interactions. For instance when actors like Hoffman and Dennis Farina, who plays Ace’s friend and driver, Gus, are just conversing in the car.
The pilot was directed by Michael Mann (also a producer), best known for “Heat” and “Miami Vice.” When it comes to shooting action sequences Mann is without peer but there’s no gunplay or car chases here. Just horse races.
Still, the visuals are rather stunning at times and you feel very much at the Santa Anita Racetrack. Mann deserves a lot of credit for making this a visual treat.
My hunch right now is that “Luck” could end up being to David Milch what “Treme” has become to “The Wire” creator David Simon.
By that I mean that people who enjoyed “The Wire” expected something similar from “Treme” and were sadly disappointed when “Treme” was well, boring.
I wouldn’t say that “Luck” is boring but it’s not always fun to watch and that could be problematic.
It’s also a show with little room for a female presence. There were perhaps two women with speaking lines in the show and one was a jockey. This will certainly change but it’s a glaring omission in the pilot.
All this makes “Luck” sound unwatchable but the reality is this is a show with a lot of potential, especially given the actors involved (Nick Nolte is also onboard as a horse trainer) and how much HBO has been backing it.
I couldn’t recommend right now it to anyone looking for some leisure or guilty pleasure watching, though if you’re someone who’s willing to stick with slower-paced dramas, you might want to tune in.
As a fan of David Milch, I’m inclined give him the benefit of the doubt and keep watching but that grace period from “Deadwood” won’t last forever. As they say, you’re only as good as your last race.
Reach writer Salomon Fuentes here