I never thought I’d seriously consider buying a horse. But after watching Luck, I just might start saving my pennies. Not to race them, but to do what I imagine David Milch does, which is sit in quiet contemplation of the animals, doubting my own significance and place in the universe. He probably does that.
The characters on Luck are all rich and layered, but the horses kind of are, too. And while there may not be a ton to differentiate one from the other, the show has done a great portraying them as some sort of conduit through which everyone’s able to tap into some sort of divine power. Even hardass Turo softens when he sees Ace sleeping outside Pint of Plain’s stall. Later that night, Ace wakes up to find his horse hovering over him, and as he — and by extension the audience — stares into the globe of his eye, we get the sense that this is what it’s all about for Milch and his characters. They find God in small moments like these. Now, I wouldn’t say the show is overly concerned with those moments. It’s not trying to throw spirituality in our faces. But like the overall je ne sais quoi of the sport, it is one aspect of it.
I’m glad the show is giving us little moments like that to take away from each episode, because we’re now halfway through the season, and I’m still waiting to see what — or even understand — I’m a huge idiot — how Ace’s master plan against Mike is supposed to play out. That whole side of the show gets pushed to the back burner this week whenever Ace wakes up to find that Pint of Plain’s been entered in a race without he or Gus — Pint’s legal owner — being told. When they call Escalante, he tells them he entered the horse’s name in the race as a favor to another trainer just to fill out a race roster, and that he’s about 90% sure the horse won’t actually race. Ace isn’t buying it, and is convinced Escalante is playing them, entering the horse in the race to make some money off of it. They’re actually okay with the horse racing, but if he’s going to race, they want to make sure the best jockey Escalante’s got is riding him. And while that whole thing makes for a really bad for Joey and Leon, it turns out to be good luck for Ace and the gang. When another horse throws a shoe during the race, which flies back, cutting one of Pint’s legs, I don’t know that Leon would have been able to keep control of the horse and finish out the race.
Of course, that’ll be little comfort to Joey, who’s forced to give Leon Escalante’s bad news. Leon grows a spine for all of five minutes to tell Joey he’s kind of sick of his shit before stomping off. And the downward spiral begins. By the end of the episode, we see Joey in tears, leaving his ex-wife voicemail after voicemail. This is a guy who’s kind of got no one left. Escalante screws him over (although he really can’t be blamed for it), he’s on Leon and Ronnie’s shit list, he can’t even get a sympathetic look from the bartender when he tells her he’s just feeling sorry for himself.
Fortunately, things aren’t so doom and gloom for everyone on the show. Marcus and Jerry get into another fight over Jerry’s gambling after the security guard from the racetrack — did anyone else notice the dried vomit stain on his shirt? — stops by an tells them he was fired after someone ratted him out for loansharking. Jerry’s had about all he can stand so he tells Renzo and Lonnie that they can take Marcus to the heart doctor. The doctor prescribes Marcus Valium, and it’s probably only because of that that he and Jerry are able to have their little heart-to-heart once Jerry cools down and comes back to the hotel. Those few minutes may have been the most real, not to mention funniest moments of the series, with Marcus telling Jerry that he only gets so pissed off at him because he cares and worries about him, therefore he’s got to be “queer” for Jerry, because straight guys don’t have these sort of feelings for each other. It’s kind of amazing that whenever these characters have some sort of emotional breakthrough, or when they’re able to knock down the barriers they surround themselves with, it feels like such an event. The race with Gettin’ Up Morning in last week’s episode. Ace’s moment with Pint of Plain earlier this week. These people are so used to putting up fronts with everyone around them that when they actually level with people and allow their feelings — or more specifically, their care and concern for each other — to come through, they really come through. You see the same thing earlier that morning, while Ace is waiting for Clair to drop by and pick up her check. I guess the question you have to ask is whether or not you can blame them. They’ve all been burned before.
Once all is said and done, I think we’ll all look back at Luck and remember it as a show that was much greater than we gave it credit for at the time. Yes, it’s taking a while for whatever the hell Ace is planning against Mike to get going, but that whole side of this story isn’t what’s great about it. It’s these characters, their relationships to each other, and their relationship to the racetrack. Everything, from their connection to the animals, the quiet moments we see them when they’re completely alone, their constant bickering, even Ace and Gus chilling out in the hotel every night, sipping Scotch and talking about life makes this one of the greatest character studies we’ve ever seen on TV. And yes, that’s taking shows like The Wire and (forgive me) Deadwood into account. Everything these guys do is plot, but the absence of plot as we might generally define it isn’t an issue in a show like this. The beats in between the beats are just as important as anything else. I’m kind of happy to watch it all.
Good shows demand patience. And for those of you who were able to hold on through the first three episodes of Luck, despite the snail’s pace at which its world was being set up, you were heartily rewarded this week. If you happened to be one of those who watched the first few episodes and figured the show just wasn’t for you, there’s still time to come back. We’ll welcome you back into the fold, but we’ll never forget who you are or what you did.
Man, Luck’s really TURNED THE CORNER, huh??? LOL. I liked this show right from the start, but it wasn’t grabbing me and beating me over the head the way Deadwood did. All that changed this week. And Rosie’s first race with Gettin’ Up Morning wasn’t even the best of it. Although it definitely was a testament to how, in the end, a show’s subject matter can always be trumped by strong character development. Rosie definitely deserved her little fist pump after coming from behind to win her race, but it was Walter Smith who really stole the show, pouring out his heart to Delphi — Gettin’ Up Morning’s sire — after the race, telling him, “I don’t know if I could lose two of you.” Whenever I find myself getting choked up by something like this, I figure the people doing it are doing it right. There wasn’t much to dislike about that entire sequence. The way the audio dropped out and was replaced by the music. And the way the race united everyone at the racetrack. Well, metaphorically, anyway.
For fans of David Milch, the way this scene was constructed probably came as no surprise. One of the themes he seems to hit on most is community, and Gettin’ Up Morning’s race really showed how all of these separate characters really aren’t separate at all, but connected by an unseen bond that’s brought them (and bound them) to this place. This is a theme Deadwood hit on quite frequently, as that show was about building a community from the ground up. And just like the bad guys and the good guys were all integral to Deadwood’s success, Turo, Gus, the shitbirds, Rosie, and Walter are all integral to making the Santa Anita Racetrack such a special place. Although I suppose that “special” here is a relative term. But it does produce its own, unique magic. And Rosie’s race was definitely a piece of that. You can see it in the character’s faces as we watch them watching the race, that what’s unfolding before them is incredibly rare, maybe even transformative.
Definitely transformative for some of them. While the closeups during Gettin’ Up Morning’s race show us how awed everyone is by what they’re seeing, one scene later in the episode show’s us how devastating it is. After falling off the horse and breaking his collarbone in last week’s episode, Ronnie’s forced to hand the reins over to another jockey — in this case Rosie — meaning that he and Joey, as Ronnie’s agent, lose out on the prestige, not to mention the money, that comes with riding a horse like that. We see Joey, alone in the bar as everyone else is packing up for the night, drunk off his ass, talking to himself. I guess I’d be feeling the same way if I had just come from a race like that, and only that morning had seen Ronnie drinking and doing drugs.
I’ll probably refer back to the Gettin’ Up Morning race several times over the coming week, so if you’ve got any problems with that, best to just get the hell out right now. I think it’s funny that for those few minutes, the race kind of had everyone let their guards down. Everyone’s bullshit show just kind of melted away, but right after the race was over, it went right back up again. Except for Marcus, who gets it in his head that, even though Jerry’s a deadbeat degenerate gambler, he’s their deadbeat degenerate gambler and they’ve got to help get him out of this thing with Chen. So Marcus, Renzo, and Lonnie load up and head out for Chen’s restaurant, where Chen’s high-stakes cash-only poker game is going on. Seriously, I didn’t think things like this existed outside of Simpsons episodes. That kind of show of camaraderie seemed a little uncharacteristic for Marcus, even knowing when to cut his losses and get out was just as uncharacteristic for Jerry. Later that night, when they’re all safe at that roach motel they’re staying at, Jerry takes a few seconds to stumble out of his room, look over at the guys who just saved him and say thanks. It warms the cockles of my heart, that stuff.
After watching Michael Gambon as Eddie Temple in Layer Cake (if you haven’t seen it, run out and get it NOW you damn fool!), I see how perfect he is in a role like this. Remember, Mike is the reason Ace spent three years in prison. Or rather, Mike’s coke is the reason. And Mike realizes that Ace may have come out the other end of all that time in prison bearing him and a few of his friends some ill will, and lets Ace know that he knows in typical Milch fashion. My biggest complaint about the show at this point (next week and we’ll be past the half-way point) is that Dustin Hoffman — billed as the show’s lead character — is the one I understand the least, and his ultimate plan for the racetrack and what it means for Mike et al, I understand even less. Slowly but surely, it’s all making itself clear, but… c’mon, I wanna know already. I bet if we got Joan Allen at one of those meetings with Ace, we wouldn’t need to see him during the show at all. He’d have told her every bit of what he was planning, and then scrapped those plans and given all his money to her horse/prisoner program. That’s how the ladies getcha.
Luck’s first season is nine episodes long. So if we chop that up into thirds, this week’s episode marks the end of the season’s first act. So while the name of the game is still “setting things up” (sounds like a pretty crappy game), don’t expect it to last too much longer. I enjoy a little bit of downtime as much as the next guy, but I’ve got that itch. The one that says the show needs to show someone getting brutally murdered. If for no other reason than to take my mind off of Walter’s soul-crushing depression over what happened to Delphi. That stuff gets me every time.
At this point in the show, Ace is still working on the fringe of the action, setting up stuff that will come later. But when his parole officer sees Ace in the gym and hears that the hotel has closed it down just for him he says, “People make adjustments.” He couldn’t have been more right. Ace is a person people live in fear of. The best example of this comes when he visits the board of his company that trades stocks and makes Ace money, I guess. As soon as he marches in that room and starts barking orders, you can kind of see everyone’s sphincters instinctively clench, just waiting for him to get the hell out of there. Nathan Israel, the only one of Ace’s lackeys who may turn out to be not much of a lackey at all is the guy he takes notice of. And Ace invites Israel back to his hotel to grill him and ultimately offer him a job. There’s something I really like about the fact that Ace is a mover and a shaker, out in the world doing big things after being locked up for three years. But every time he hooks up with Gus he turns into just another old guy, taking the piss with everyone he comes in contact with. The two of them falling asleep while talking to each other at the end of the day isn’t really doing much to help things.
One of the things I love about David Milch is illustrated really well in the opening credits of that great cop drama, NYPD Blue. In the middle of this loud, clanging drum beat, everything gets quiet and we hear these very calming synthesized strings and, I don’t know, an oboe or something. What I’ve always taken from that is that in the middle of all the craziness we’re seeing on screen, there are moments of great beauty, when everything else just kind of falls away. We saw the same thing this week with the four shitbirds, after they buy Mon Gateau from Mulligan. After Turo runs down this laundry list of expenses (it turns out owning a horse costs a lot of money), Renzo asks if they can pet him. Now, I know I’m taking this way overboard, but there’s this sense that walking up to this animal and petting him is some sort of cleansing ritual. Almost like its innocence rubs off in some small way on those who surround it. Even Turo drops his hardass act for a few minutes to watch, and hands them all carrots to feed the horse, telling them all to make sure and keep their hands open when they give them to him. It was a nice moment. But of course, it could never last, and it isn’t long before Marcus is calling everyone an asshole and Jerry’s back at the poker tables, losing money to Chan.
It’s only now, six years after Deadwood’s gone off the air, that I realize how truly unique its dialogue was. And six years on, we see that Milch hasn’t completely been able to shake off that voice. In a way, Walter is this show’s Swearengen; the old man who’s given to spontaneous monologuing, either when he’s alone or in front of an audience who can’t really respond to him (just replace the whores with horses (and yes I realize what a cute turn of phrase that was (don’t worry I’m going to kill myself))). This week we hear him rehearsing his pitch to Rosie, asking her to come back to Arcadia to ride Gettin’ Up Morning, after turning her down when she asked after the job in last week’s episode. Then, Walter was all about Ronnie Jenkins riding the horse, but after taking a fall in a race and breaking his collarbone, he’s out and Rosie’s in. Which I suppose is just as well, as we see Ronnie take to DRUGS to deal with the pain.
It’s funny, the things that will humanize a character. Turo Escalante is obviously a mid-level player at the track. He shows deference to people like Ace and Gus, while thumbing his nose at everyone else. But in this week’s episode, we get a a chance to see the man at home. See where he spends his free time. And then we see Jo, the woefully underused vet from the track, and hear Turo utter those four words that really put us inside his head, let us know who he is: “Want to do it?” He’s a person. He wants what I want. It turns out there’s a little bit of Turo in all of us.
Hmm… It may turn out that Luck is a tough nut to crack. The aptly named “Episode Two” was much more concerned with the nuts and bolts of worldbuilding than the pilot. And while there was a race for us to watch, it didn’t have the same emotional umpf as the Pick Six in last week’s premiere. But, I will not be deterred. I’m willing to sit down at the show’s knee and learn… if it’ll let me.
We learned a lot about Dustin Hoffman this week, including why he went to prison and his plans to turn the Santa Anita racetrack into a gambler’s paradise. And if there was anything for me to glom onto, this whole side of things was definitely it. Hopefully you all stuck around to watch the “This Season On Luck…” promo HBO ran after the pilot. When I saw that Mike, whose cocaine Ace was found in possession of and went to jail for, was played by Michael Gambon, I got up and saluted the British flag (or whatever the hell they do there), and ate a steak and kidney pie. During Ace’s little sit-down with Ted Levine, who’ll always be Buffalo Bill to me, we also saw the amount of deference these guys give him. Although, after his shirt-ripping ‘roid rager last week, can we really blame them? Maybe they sense a regime change coming.
What the hell is Turo Escalante saying? I get what he was trying to do with Mon Gateau: trying to drag down people’s expectations by entering him in the claiming race with bandaged ankles. But I’m still trying to figure out how he plays in to the bigger picture. He’s a hardcase, but ultimately comes across as someone who takes his marching orders from people like Ace. He’s a smart guy, but unlike Ace, who you can tell sees the chess board five or six moves down the road, Escalante sometimes takes stupid risks he shouldn’t. He spent years working with Mon Gateau and lost him in the end. I think. I’m still waiting on the subtitles.
They were degenerate gamblers before, and they’re degenerate gamblers now. After winning the Pick Six, Marcus, Jerry, Renzo, and Lonnie go right back to doing the same old thing. Staying in dirty hotels and eating in dirty diners. Jerry takes his share of the winnings and starts blowing it at the poker tables. Lonnie almost gets himself killed by two women trying to collect on an insurance policy they had taken out on him. Marcus yells at everyone, stopping occasionally to suck down oxygen. And in the middle of all this, Renzo is going around, looking for ways to keep the band together. His idea is for the four of them to go in as co-buyers on Mon Gateau. Which they ultimately lose to… W. Earl Brown! Well, if you’ve got to lose to someone, might as well be him. Here’s hoping the show finds an excuse to bring him back. Maybe have him call someone “Crop Ear” and cut their throat. Anyway, the gamblers. After Marcus acts like a complete dick and sends everyone running off to their separate corners, we find them all back in the same motel parking lot, scrambling to get a bleeding and broken Lonnie off the ground and into a room. No surprise. People like this are incapable of staying away from each other for too long. You get the feeling that years from now, when Ace and Gus and Turo are long gone, these guys will still be there. Chain-smoking and calling each other assholes.
If Turo’s tomfoolery with Mon Gateau and the mechanics of the claiming race were a little hard to decipher, Nick Nolte’s explanation of what happened to Delphi, the father of Gettin’ Up Morning, how he was killed for a $30 million insurance policy was the complete opposite. Dogs, horses, whatever, this stuff kills me. If I had been waking up, day in and day out, for years on end with that rolling around in my head, I imagine my voice would sound something like his. I was sorry to see that despite her asking, Nolte still passed Rosie over for Ronnie for that spot in the afternoon races. Nolte — I’ll start calling him Walter — talks about what it was like hearing Delphi’s bones breaking, but what about Rosie’s heart?
As you may have heard, HBO renewed Luck for a second season two days after the pilot aired. Even though the show’s ratings weren’t stellar, I don’t think this move came as a surprise to anyone. First, great ratings don’t hurt, but they aren’t HBO’s business. It’s all about word-of-mouth and critical acclaim, which the show is getting its fair share of. Second, HBO wants to be in business with Dustin Hoffman and Michael Mann (to say nothing of David Milch). After The Sopranos and Deadwood went away, there was a period in which the network wasn’t doing anything too extraordinary, but now, with shows like Games of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Luck, and True Blood (which is a ratings-grabber for the network), and all the names those shows bring with them, I think HBO has reclaimed its spot as the go-to place for good drama (sorry, AMC).
There invariably comes a time, while watching movies like Rango or playing video games like Battlefield 3 where we say, “They’re almost there.” It’ll only be a few years before we can’t tell the difference between what we’re seeing on the screen and real life. It’ll only be a few years before this sort of media won’t be able to look any better. It’ll be as real and lifelike as it can ever get. To a certain extent, the same applies to TV shows. Despite the ungodly amount of shit we see on our screens, we are living in a sort of golden age when it comes to television.
But unlike computer animated lizards or soldiers blowing each other up, television’s golden age is much farther along. This isn’t only about moving away from your typical procedurals (YES there’s room for both, you bastards) and toward more character-driven shows, but shows that take entire seasons to pay off. Shows that are built more like novels than they are TV shows, sometimes going off on tangents just to give us a better idea of who these people are. And in discovering that, helping us to see beauty and meaning in the mundane, without having to worry about cliffhangers coming every ten minutes to keep us in our seats through the commercial breaks. Shows that are meant to be experienced almost as much as they’re meant to be watched. And despite offerings like Real Sex, G String Divas, and Dane Cook’s Tourgasm, HBO is kind of leading the charge.
Two writers — David Milch and David Simon — broke new ground with these sorts of shows with Deadwood and The Wire, and those shows paved the way for Luck and Treme, but since we’re talking about Luck here, I’ll try and only talk about Luck**.
(**I have a lot of feelings about Treme — a lot of problems, too — that I’ll talk about at another time. But despite my problems with it, it’s the only other show I can think of that approaches what Milch has done with Luck, or at least tries to.)
I suppose there’s a fear out there that Luck, entrenched in the world of horse racing, isn’t going to be accessible to the typical Philistine viewer. And that’s true. There comes a point where all the Pick Six stuff goes over your head and you have to just kind of go with it. Still, I think the show offers enough for everyone to relate to. At its heart — and after only one episode maybe it’s too early to say — I think Luck is a show about people who the world’s passed by. From Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein, who’s just come off a three-year prison stretch to Nick Nolte as a grizzled (I think I’m the first person to use that word) ex-trainer who’s still trying to live down the death of one of his horses. Those things, coupled with the always-half-empty Santa Anita racetrack lend to this feeling that while there may be better days ahead, the days behind us were pretty damn good, too. And by the time we get to the pilot’s final race, there comes a moment where we can feel the sun on our face, feel the chill in the air and link it to some past memory, something we miss. Even if racing isn’t your thing, I imagine we’ll all have some passing interest in it by the time the first season’s over.
Of course, this show wouldn’t be a fifth of what it is if it weren’t for the people behind it; that perfect storm of David Milch (please be seated), Michael Mann and Dustin Hoffman. There’s not much we can say about Milch that hasn’t been said already. It’s only been a few short years since John from Cincinnati crashed and burned, and Deadwood’s premature death still hurts, so we’re happy to have him back. But in a lot of ways, Michael Mann is the one who brings the show to life. When we come to that final race at the end of the pilot, it’s him who breathes life into something most of us have little to no experience with, making us realize only once it’s all over that we’ve been sitting on the edge of our seats, our hands covering our mouths the entire time. Dustin Hoffman is as good as he’s ever been, but in this first episode, coming out of prison the way he is, he’s still trying to get his feet under him. Right now he’s kind of orbiting the racetrack, trying to work his way back into that world. His best moments are still to come.
There’s a lot going on here, and if you’ve seen the preview for the rest of the season you know that eventually it’s going to get pretty heavy. But, being David Milch and HBO, you also know it’s going to be a slow burn. And because things here in the pilot are only just getting set up, it’s best to watch the show once and enjoy it before you start to analyze things. There’s a lot here that could turn people away, but I think there’s a feeling about this show, and shared experience that could really bring people in.
Author’s note: I make no apologies for being a David Milch apologist. One episode in and I already love this show. My first draft of this review said only: THE BEST, scrawled in crayon on a picture of Dustin Hoffman and a horse. I’ll try and be more objective in the future, but no promises.