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Luck, Ep. 1.01: “Pilot” admirably faces down expectations

Luck, Ep. 1.01: “Pilot” admirably faces down expectations

Luck, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Written by David Milch
Directed by Michael Mann
Airs Sundays on HBO

More than most series – and even more than most HBO series – Luck is facing down a hell of a set of expectations. For the first time since the disastrously-received (but, in some corners, quietly revered) John From Cincinatti, showrunner David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) is back at the helm of his own series again. Accompanying him: producer and pilot director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, Ali, etc.), bona-fide movie stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, a host of other notable character actors and TV regulars (Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy, Richard Kind, and, later on, Michael Gambon). Most crucially of all, Luck centers around a millieu that evokes the grimy hopefulness of Deadwood‘s lawless camp: the world of horse racing. It’s safe to say expectations may be unreasonable.

As it turns out, Luck‘s pilot is precisely the sum of those aforementioned parts – and for now, that’s likely good enough. (Those are some pretty strong parts, after all.)

Like the Deadwood pilot, Luck‘s first 60 minutes have a whole lot of heavy lifting to do, and most of it is done with considerable grace. Though Hoffman, who essays Milch Surrogate #1 (aka ex-con gangster Chester Bernstein), gets top billing and some of the showier dialogue, Luck is an ensemble piece in the strictest sense of the word. That means Nolte (Milch Surrogate #2, known only as “The Old Man”) gets about the same amount to do, but so do “hard to understand” trainer Escalante (John Ortiz), perpetually broke father-and-son gamblers Marcus (Kevin Dunn)  and Jerry (Jason Gedrick), and cocky jockey Leon (Tom Payne). Hennessey only really gets one scene as horse doctor Jo, but she does manage to snag one of the more memorable entrances in recent TV history.

(On the two Milch surrogates: Bernstein captures his tenacious, tempestuous side – and the fact that he’s been locked up for three years and is released in the first scene of the pilot is just too delicious a parallel not to point out, since Luck‘s pilot wrapped sometime last year and Cincinatti‘s one season bowed out in, yes, ’07. As for Nolte, The Old Man seems to reflect Milch’s true-blue love and affection for both the sport itself and the creatures who toil away within it without knowing why or how they were chosen, and it also seems as though he’ll be the character to most frequently supply wistful philosophical musings of the sort Milch is so fond of penning.)

What Luck‘s pilot gets most crucially right is getting us involved in this eventful first set of six races, even if the precise machinations of the sport and the betting schemes are not immediately clear to the layman. Without an excess of exposition, Milch and Mann artfully lay out the stakes for the crowd and, more importantly, the feel of the race itself. Mann is the ideal choice to lens the pilot, as he sets up the shooting style needed to capture the speed and intensity of the race, which future directors will likely (or at least should) hew close to. That we’re at all invested in the outcome of this first episode’s set of races is no mean feat.

On the less positive side, compared to a flawless pilot like Deadwood‘s, “Pilot” doesn’t manage to convince us of the memorability of its cast of characters quite yet. Ortiz, Payne and Gedrick stand out, likely because more happens to their characters than to any others throughout the hour, but there’s no sense from this first hour that any of these figures will resonate on the same level as Deadwood‘s key players. That can be chalked up partially to the pilot’s need to establish relatively unfamiliar terrain (as opposed to Deadwood‘s well-trod setting), but Milch’s dialogue also doesn’t have quite the same kick. (Some small moments of repetition and clarification pleasingly echo Mamet in his prime, though.)

The best sign of Luck‘s future success lies in its execution of a key scene late in the pilot involving one of Escalante’s horses. Though the Sigur Ros tune gooses the scene a little too much – ex-Tinderstick Dickon Hinchliffe’s original score, on the other hand, is distinctive and appropriate throughout – the weight of what transpires is communicated effectively and without excess. As far as bouts of tough love go, it’s not too far removed from watching the creators of one of the best TV shows ever give it his all with some fine collaborators, only to greet him with: “Not bad. Let’s see what else you got.”

Simon Howell