HBO has a pretty simple formula for developing its original programming. When creating a new drama series, throw a whole lot of money at it and attract big name talent. The strategy works more often than not. This past Sunday, the network had a special preview event for the pilot episode of ‘Luck’, which will officially premiere at the end of January. The show, which is centered around the world of professional horse racing, is produced by David Milch (‘NYPD Blue’, ‘Deadwood’) and Michael Mann. The cast features a line-up of heavy-hitters including Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and Michael Gambon. Did those names get your attention? They sure got mine.
With Milch writing and Mann directing, the ‘Pilot’ episode of the series is certainly intriguing. The show has a huge, sprawling cast. In addition to the names listed above, familiar faces like Richard Kind, Jason Gedrick and Kevin Dunn also appear. (While Michael Gambon isn’t in the first episode, he will have a recurring role later in the season.) The show follows several tiers of characters, from the horse owners to the trainers, jockeys and gamblers at the track.
Top-billed Hoffman plays a mobster named Chester “Ace” Bernstein. Fresh out of prison (presumably for racketeering), he’s prohibited from owning a race horse, so he stakes his driver Gus (Farina) with $2 million to buy a promising thoroughbred and act as his front man. Ace also has plans to build his own casino and race track, but his age and failing memory leave his cronies doubtful of his power and influence.
Other storylines involve a rival owner (Nolte) who has deliberately held back and hidden his horse’s potential in order to make it an underdog, a trainer who may be betting on his own races, an arrogant jockey who can’t keep his big mouth shut, and a circle of lowlife gamblers who’ve developed a complicated betting strategy to win the “Pick 6” for a $2.7 million payday.
Both Mann and Milch are fond of throwing the audience directly into the action without a whole lot of exposition. The pilot episode is heavy on disorienting scenes of characters machine-gunning out dialogue thick with jargon about gambling stats and racing terminology. It’s confusing. I lost track of what was happening in a number of scenes. I don’t think that’s unintentional. In fact, there’s a hilarious moment during the climax of the episode where one of the gamblers gets so lost as to which horse he’s supposed to be rooting for that he yells out, “Will someone please tell me what’s happening?!” If you just go with it and don’t stress over understanding everything that’s happening at every second, the pieces eventually start to fall into place. No doubt, this is the sort of thing that will make more sense the longer you watch it.
Like most things that Mann has directed, the episode is very moody and stylish, but has a chilly emotional vibe. There really aren’t any characters to latch onto and root for, per se. The director is more fascinated with the workings of the culture than the people in it. However, the performances are top-notch across the board, and the couple of big racing scenes (which were apparently shot with lightweight cameras on the horses) are incredibly suspenseful and exciting.
I honestly don’t know whether this show will be another hit for HBO or not. It has the talent and star power, but it’s not as flashy or instantly compelling as something like ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (Gangsters! Tommy guns!) or ‘Game of Thrones’ (Swordplay! Dragons!). I can see people getting impatient with it and tuning out. Personally, I’m interested enough to watch again when the series starts in earnest on January 29th.