Luck, Ep.1.02: Hoffman and Nolte earn their stripes, but the writing blossoms too

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Luck, Season One, Episode Two
Written by John R. Perrotta
Directed by Terry George
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on HBO

“The Ace is back in place.”

To Luck‘s credit, it goes to great lengths to put all of its players on an even keel in terms of representation on the screen; that means the big-deal movie stars don’t get an appreciably greater deal of exposure than the reams of lesser-known character actors on display. With that said, how great is Dustin Hoffman here? More energized and present than he’s been since maybe I Heart Huckabees, though obviously in a very different capacity, Hoffman absolutely tears into his scenes this week, even moreso than in the pilot. When a longstanding criminal associate utters the above line, you’re right there with him. (In interviews promoting the show, Hoffman has expressed a certain disgust for recent Hollywood moviemaking, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he seems so freshly engaged here.)

A showstopping performance like Hoffman’s might actually work against an ensemble piece like this, except that there’s such a learning curve on display here in terms of getting immersed in Milch’s supremely detailed world of backroom dealings and equine intrigue that a certain level of accessible human interest is sort of a necessity. On that score, the other Big Name also does some heavy lifting this week in a crucial scene that makes clear that his Old Man (referred to at one point by another character as “Smith”) acts as the show’s conscience in the midst of so much trickery. Recounting the story of his promising young horse (Gettin’ Up Morning)’s father and his untimely demise at the hands of greedy owners looking to cash in on an insurance policy, Nolte’s reliably gruff delivery helps to sell a character who might seem laughable on paper (a man who’s largely grown disillusioned with the ways of men but still carries an abiding love for horses).

If anyone thought the pilot lacked for Milchian bon mots, “Episode Two” likely put those fears to rest, beginning to really develop the speaking styles of most of the show’s ensemble. (Deadwood fans should remember that just because Milch’s name isn’t on every teleplay, doesn’t make a given hour’s dialogue any less “his.”) Especially distinct this week is ambitious hangdog Renzo, who attempts to make a claim on Bon Gateau following its win last week, but meets only with disapproval from Marcus, who, despite his physical state, seems to possess a kind of thrall that Renzo can only hesitantly break free from. Not that it ends up mattering much, as a behatted mofo named Mulligan (a nearly-wordless W. Earl Brown) winds up winning the horse anyway, even as a dazzled Marcus looks over Bon Gateau’s stunning win at the claiming race, sensing a missed opportunity that flies in the face of his previous judgment.

If there’s a weak link to be found so far, it’s Marcus’s son Jerry. His throughline so far feels “right” in the sense that people who win big often double down on bad habits, but Jason Gedrick is probably the least appealing of the lowlifes, making it hard to get too invested in the character’s exploits as of yet, as we instinctively sense that his minor “win” at the tables this week is likely just prelude to a future breakdown. His pal Lonnie, on the other hand, makes pissing a small fortune away a highly entertaining affair, aided immensely by his hilarious, foolish displays of verbiage. (And while his being played by a pair of forty-something minxes was plainly telegraphed, it was a touch of genius having at least one of them turn out to be a Birther.)

In any case, there’s something immensely satisfying in seeing Luck‘s world really begin to come together. Fully grasping the exact mechanics of its many competing schemes isn’t as important as cluing into the show’s careful development of the racetrack as a kind of singular platform for some of fate’s more momentous designs. If the show’s lingo and general lack of expository hand-holding is a difficulty, however, I recommend checking out the “Inside Track” interviews being published weekly over at HBO.com, wherein Milch expounds a little on some of the show’s trickier plot points. It’s not every day a show is enhanced by extracurricular reading, but that’s Milch for you.

Simon Howell

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