Created by David Milch
Everybody’s luck ends sometime. For HBO’s horse-racing drama “Luck,” it was after season one, when an unfortunate accident left one horse on the set dead. Still, for one season at least, “Luck” gave audiences an intriguing and exciting look at the microcosm that is the American horse racing scene.
Dustin Hoffman is in classic form as Ace Bernstein, an ex-con who tries to get back in the big-time gambling scene without breaking parole. He deals with slimy mobsters to try to integrate casinos into California’s Santa Anita race track, but whose pocket does he have his hand in? And who has their hand in his pocket? Trainers Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) and Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) continue a mini-rivalry, fighting over jockeys and track positions, as the jockeys (Kerry Condon, Gary Stevens, and Tom Payne) fight amongst themselves for the chance to ride in the biggest race. One battles addiction, another struggles to make weight. Agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) finds himself in his own predicament as he contemplates his life. A group of low-down gamblers make enough to buy their own horse and deal with the struggles of owning a race horse. And in the backdrop, a series of love sagas, a couple money-driven murders, and a bunch of horses racing. Welcome to the world of big-time California horse racing.
The littlest things made “Luck” work. Cinematography, normally not a staple of TV, excels in heightening drama, poeticizing everyday routines, and showing the emotions that run through this cast like an electric charge. The music, while unusual, creates a memorable soundtrack and sets “Luck” apart. One of the biggest things that one should point out is the script. Filled with technical horse-racing lingo, itself its own language, “Luck” is hardly for someone completely unfamiliar with horse-racing, as I was. I say was, because after 9 episodes I think I know more about how horse racing works than most other people that have only watched the Kentucky Derby on TV. “Luck” educates with the best of them, but also offers a thrilling look into the complex machine that is horse racing. It assumes you’ve already taken “Horse Racing 101,” but once you get into it you start picking up on how it works. After episode 3, it’s like you’ve joined this exclusive fraternity of people that know what the characters are talking about, because you know that the first-time viewer wouldn’t understand. But until you watch it (or, you know, go to a horse track a couple times), you never will.
Hoffman is as exceptional as ever as the ex-con Bernstein. His stiff approach shows his institutionalized recent past. Ortiz demands respect as the big-shot trainer Escalante, but as you get to know him you start to like and understand him. Ortiz does a wonderful job slowly revealing his true character. Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster, and Jason Gedrick are superb as the four bottom-of-the-barrel gambling addicts who decide to try to move up and buy their own horse to race. These amateurs get their time in the spotlight, but their careful deliberation and friendship (even when few others would even give them the time of day) are executed masterfully. Fantastic character acting.
“Luck” didn’t last very long, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the one stellar season it did produce. It’s as educational as it is thrilling and emotionally charged. I’ll tell you what. Flip a coin, and then see it.
“Luck: Season 1” is on Blu-ray and DVD (I bought it brand new on eBay for $8).