It Ain’t ‘Luck’

How HBO rigged its pony show to be a sure bet

If there’s one thing reviewers for Luck can agree on, it’s that, like one of the sleek thoroughbred horses showcased on the new HBO drama’s Santa Anita, Calif., racetrack set, it comes from an impressive lineage. After all, it’s the brainchild of David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) and Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Heat) and stars Dustin Hoffman—no acting slouch.

But if there’s two things they agree on, it’s that it’s not very good. It’s slow. It’s irritatingly obtuse. (The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum aptly observed that “it yearns to celebrate an exotic subculture, one whose argot can feel as impenetrable as Klingon.”) It’s so authentic that it’s boring; just because Milch is an equestrian doesn’t mean anyone else cares about the rules and regulations associated with horse ownership. Or, as the Los Angeles Times more bluntly put it, the show is “drowning in pretension.”

But more interesting than how this pedigreed pony show fails is why it fails. Surely it’s not that gambling doesn’t make for riveting narratives—look at The Sting. Casino. Croupier. Hell, even NBC’s Las Vegas was entertaining for a few seasons (thanks largely to Josh Duhamel’s poker chip-size dimples). And it’s not because the cast is a bunch of grizzled, rheumy-eyed schlubs who stink of whiskey and desperation (look at Entourage. Ha, kidding. Sort of.) No, Luck ultimately fails because it rides on cachet. If I may get my pun on, there’s no need to be strong out of the gate, because the odds are even.

Take Hoffman. His character, Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a gambling mogul-turned-ex-con-oops-turned-back-to-gambling-mogul who’s as partial to crisp suits as he is to guttural threats, is the very definition of a prestige role, the love child of Tony Soprano and Don Draper (oh, please, Logo—turn that into a sitcom!).

In fact, the whole production is so studded with boldface names (Nick Nolte, Joan Allen, Dennis Farina), that it verges on tailor-made ratings bait, a meticulously groomed successor to Boardwalk Empire as the pay-cable network’s newest critical darling.

But a show about a racetrack should know better than to jump the gun.

It’s nice to have great actors. It’s even better to actually give them something to do. While Hoffman may look the part of the dynamic leading man, in the series’ first episodes he barely racks up 15 minutes of screen-time (which is, to be fair, more than the show’s single significant female character, played by Jill Hennessy, nets). Could it be that The Sopranos and Mad Men have paved the way for a certain degree of laziness, even among great writers and producers?

In Luck’s case, it’s not enough to have a Mysterious Man surrounded by a gaggle of Semi-Comic Supporting Cohorts (most of the early action centers on a group of curmudgeonly racetrack railbirds) against the backdrop of an Interesting Profession when the plot—insofar as there is one, which is debatable—stumbles along like an out-of-work drunk loitering around an OTB on a weekday afternoon.

And yet despite its meandering milquetoastiness, just two days after its first episode aired, Luck was picked up for a second season. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the critical response to this beautiful piece of work,” HBO’s president of programming gushed in a statement. (Hmmm. Perhaps he was referring to The New York Times’ withering assessment of the series as “not close to great?”)

Maybe I’m being unfair; after all, even a double Harvard legacy with a generous donor for a father deserves to have his admissions essay read. To its credit, Luck finds its sea legs—albeit shaky ones—as the season progresses, and the adrenaline-pumping POV shots of the galloping horses (horse racing : Luck :: football : Friday Night Lights, i.e. you’d better get used to a lot of slo-mo climaxes) are thrilling, even to someone who (ahem, Milch) who doesn’t know her quinellas from her trifectas. The show never develops into anything particularly dynamic or memorable, but then again, it doesn’t have to be.

After all, this race is fixed.

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