It’s standard practice for television shows set in unfamiliar milieus to provide what are referred to as “POV characters.” Think Tim/Jim in either version of The Office, or a pre-preggo Peggy Olson on Mad Men: sympathetic newbies whose encounters with confusing, contextual insanity mirrors the audience’s. Luck is a show that takes viewers deeply inside the world of horses in a way not usually possible without a large animal veterinarian and an elbow-length latex glove. Knowledge of the intricacies and rhythms of the racetrack are assumed. Relationships between characters are unexplained. Foreign accents are cartoonish and unintelligible. So you’d think a little extra narrative help might be provided. And yet, two episodes into its first season, Luck offers no understanding audience surrogates or even a friendly trail of hay to follow.
The reason is, like most things related to the work of David Milch, machismo. The creator of Deadwood eats your POV character for breakfast and then voids him in the middle of Central Park like he was pulling a hansom cab. One gets the sense that he would have made this series regardless of whether HBO had given him the millions of dollars to do so, cackling mannishly as his kennel of degenerates claimed stallions, munched on carrots, and hit each other in the head with blackjacks and saps. Considering this monomania, we should at least be grateful for Gus, Ace Bernstein’s loyal pony beard, who watches his first high-stakes race with a joyful naivete that’s welcome in the midst of such a claustrophobic hour. “C’mon, horse!” he whoops from the stands, clearly unsure if this is the right thing to say. Inevitably, no one corrects him.
The pilot for Luck had two things going for it that are glaringly absent in week two: the visceral, visual brilliance of director Michael Mann and the helpful framework of an unlikely pick six jackpot. Robbed of Mann’s aggressive camera — the only thing reminiscent of Mann on-screen this week is a goat with “nuts the size of pumpkins” — and the irresistible adrenaline of a big payoff, what we’re left with is the seedy underbelly of a show primarily concerned with the seedy underbelly. It’s an hour of unpleasant throat clearing in a particularly phlegmy gullet.
Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein, our putative lead, isn’t given any handles to fly off or shirt buttons to pop. Instead, he’s forced to bare his “shy kidneys” in front of his droopy parole officer (played by Michael Mann repertory member Barry Shabaka Henley) and act like the junior partner in front of the increasingly ridiculous trainer, Turo Escalante. (Look, John Ortiz is a fine actor, but this outlandish, unappealing character needs to be dialed down about 500 notches. Not every scene needs to be a master class in Peruvian slanglish and “beasting on these cucarachas,” you know?) Hoffman can do coiled fury in his sleep; the sooner he stops lecturing everyone on the state of the American economy and delivering base exposition about his wrongful cocaine rap and the joys of outmaneuvering the “rain dancers” for casino lucre, the better. And while Ace’s patient relationship with Gus is sweet and all, their burning desire to “go get” the cocksuckers that did them wrong seems unseemly in hombres of their age bracket. Why can’t they just head down to Palm Desert, maybe get a condo together instead? Thus far, these two seem more believable (and entertaining) as an old married couple than as vengeful button men.
As for last week’s instant millionaires, their fortunes appear to be little improved. As self-righteous Marcus huffs and puffs into his oxygen mask about keeping a low profile, Jerry is blowing Benjamins by the fistful at the high-stakes poker table (and developing what appears to be a nasty case of the sniffles in the process) and Renzo, in sway to his Fredo-like sweetness, attempts to claim one of Turo’s horses for himself and his partners. To say that this storyline, predicated on an obscure racetrack ownership policy that’s as easily digestible as Major League Baseball’s waiver system, was cryptic would be an insult to crypts everywhere, especially considering Renzo doesn’t even walk away a winner. (He loses the horse in a postrace game of Yahtzee to a “cowboy with a fucking different haircut.”) Still, the most unfortunate member of the Ruined Dudes Cabal was Lonnie, who this week exhibited a knack for snappy dressing and turn of phrase (“My mental adroitness is dulled by this constant negativity!”) but zero street smarts as he’s drugged and beaten half to death by some half-naked Tea Partying con artists he once called friends (or at least fuckbuddies).
So far the best argument for sticking with this horse pucky is Nick Nolte’s head-scratching turn as Reiner and Brooks’ 2,000-Year-Old Man. Hunched and hoarse, a white beard covering his cheeks like residual snow from a forgotten ice age, Walter Smith is the sort of coot who weeps over fallen mares and, in a surprise move for a Milch/Mann production, shows a modicum of kindness toward a woman. Of course, Rosie won’t be allowed to ride Walter’s miracle steed — for now, at least, that honor goes to the truly incomprehensible Cajun, Leon Micheaux — but her impassioned pleas and Walter’s gentlemanly demurrals provide this sordid landscape’s only glimpse of values and desires that go beyond cash and cruelty. It’s not exactly relatable, but it’s a start.
Read our previous Luck coverage here.