Luck: Pilot/Episode 2

A great sense of style can be one of the best ways to draw people into a TV show. Just look at Mad Men- to sell that to somebody, you wouldn’t really mention the stories or the characters (Don Draper, maybe), you’d just give people an idea of the unbelievable amount of coolness present in every second of Mad Men. Even the opening credits pull you in with how stylish they are.

The exact same thing happened with Luck- once the opening credits started up, full of beautifully shot gambling-related images and set to this tantalizing, hypnotic beat (Splitting the Atom by Massive Attack, if you were curious) I was hooked. I didn’t even need to see the actual show to know that.

That may sound a little stupid, but it’s true. That initial wave of “oh, this is gonna be really good, isn’t it” carried me from the opening credits all the way through episodes one and two.

But wait- let’s not continue this here. Press “Continue Reading” and we can speak in private, away from the prying eyes of the homepage.

It can only be this way.

So back to style and how it pertains to Luck- yes, the opening credits are lovely, but there’s more to it than that. Our introduction to the racetrack that serves as a home for all our major stories is an absolutely beautiful piece of television. Lots of subtle slo-mo applied to horses rocketing across the track, gamblers perusing their tickets, and various minor characters taking it all in. There’s not as much of this slowed down, dialogue-free exposition in Episode 2 (which I would have preferred), but getting to see anything as well-shot, well-edited and well-scored on TV is always a treat.

But now, sadly, we have to move on to something I didn’t like quite as much:

Jargon.

There is a whole lot of jargon flying back and forth in these first two episodes. So much. Like, a ton. And it gets a little distracting when I have to constantly make educated guesses about what a “bug” or a “pick six” is. Here’s an example of some especially egregious jargon-ing from the pilot episode.

“Well, three days worth of pick six carryovers worth several million dollars and you hand your bankroll to the ricers?”

At the very beginning of a series, before we’ve had any amount of time to get acclimated to this world and the very specific rules that run it, dialogue like that is a lot to handle.

Episode 2 fixes all of this with the help of Dennis Farina. Farina, who plays limo driver to Dustin Hoffman’s high-rolling gangster Chester “Ace” Bernstein, is being used as a front for Hoffman’s character, as Hoffman starts out the series having been newly released from jail and is legally not allowed to be doing any horse-business while he’s still on parole.

So Farina has to act like he’s a horse-racing bigwig, despite having no idea what any of this stuff is. This kind of character is perfect for introducing an audience into a strange, complicated world you can’t just explain away in the opening credits.

And so we get all manner of different characters explaining the rules of this game to Farina (and also us watching the show) who does a bang-up job of being the perfect bumbling, slightly dimwitted, semi-enthusiastic patsy. His reactions to the race at the end of the second episode are just priceless.

And, this being a David Milch (of Deadwood fame) show, the ensemble cast is all marvelous and really feels like an ensemble. Unlike some other shows I could name, but choose not to.

Dexter.

There, I said it.

But anyway, on Luck there’s isn’t any character that’s a clear, overwhelmingly important protagonist (Dustin Hoffman’s character seems to be billed that way, but he’s not getting any more screen time than anybody else), and the variety in the characters presented here allow us to see the racetrack from every angle. Horse trainers, jockeys, big-money power players, compulsive gamblers and agents- everyone gets their fair share.

That variety’s present in the cast, too, with old masters like Dustin Hoffman, well-loved but lesser known character actors like Richard Kind, and a few under-the-radar choices like Kevin Dunn, who, despite his roles in all three Transformers movies, is just spectacular as the wheelchair-bound Marcus.

Honestly, the only actor who doesn’t quite click with me is John Ortiz as Turo Escalante- he seems like he’s chewing the scenery just a little bit too much for this type of show. But at this point I’m really just nitpicking.

There are a few other peculiar moments- especially that scene in the second episode with those two prostitues (were they prostitues? I was never quite sure). That whole bit felt stuck in some no man’s land between wacky comedy and actual suspense and it all felt a little off. Still, though. Nitpicking.

And really, that should just about wrap it up for this review- Luck’s off to a strong start despite a few missteps here and there, and as the beginning of a brand new series, Luck feels much stronger initially then, say, Boardwalk Empire or Treme did at their respective outsets. So that’s definitely a plus.

A few quick thoughts before I depart:

  • Loved the cameos we’ve seen so far- Ted Levine and W. Earl Brown (Deadwood’s Dan Dority). Hopefully, like Justified before it, Luck can become a second home to Deadwood’s supporting players.
  • I love all the extreme close ups of horse eyes- not only does that immediately forge a connection between audience and horse, but I get flashbacks to the Pie-O-My arc on The Sopranos, and that’s never a bad thing.

So what did all you folks in the blogosphere think of Luck? Impressed? Unimpressed? Nurturing a brand-new gambling addiction?

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21 responses to “Luck: Pilot/Episode 2

  1. We’ve been impressed with Luck so far. It will be interesting how they build the stories up. I always love HBO series. Nothing will ever top Six Feet Under for me though. My favorite current HBO series are Boardwalk Empire and the documentary series on Freddie Roach.

    • I’m excited to see the ensemble cast get more and more ties connecting each other and crisscrossing all over the place. Hopefully by the end of the season it’ll all be a tangled mess (in the best possible way).

  2. You showed me some possible small, insignificant flaws (I love my people with flaws and all…) which I didn’t observed but even with that Luck would be no doubt a great serie, a great movie and I will be stuck each Sunday at 21 h before my tv set, no matter what.

    But then, with a team like this, what is surprising is not that this is (and will be) very, very good.. Common! David Milch, Michael Mann, Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte (whom you forgot to mention, I think)… How could be something created by them BAD? Thant will be surprising! I am partial to Dick Francis novels (the same world of horses and jockey and passionate, often evil patrons and horse owners but in UK, mostly) and to horses but this Luck series has everything to be splendid! Thanks for the beautifully written post!

    • Thank YOU for the beautifully written comment! I’m a little worried because so far the show has gotten only mediocre ratings, but it’s already been given a second season, so at a bare minimum we get two years of this wonderful show.

      • I’m afraid exquisite quality, art-like quality is not always the thing for most people. A lot of LUCK is needed for a work of art (or simply a very good movie) to get to the top… I see these often on Fine Art America too (I try to make a buck there): mediocre or simply kitsch sells better… But, just like you, I will intensely enjoy these 2 years, if I have the chance…Do you like Dick Francis’s novels?

      • I’ve actually never read any Dick Francis’s novels. I’m looking at his website now (to read some descriptions of a few of his books) and they look really intriguing. I love a good thriller, and I’m all out of books by the last author I was reading, Lee Child, so these look like a good way to fill the hole in my literary heart.

        To the library!

      • The intrigue has a bit a pattern to it, if you read them one after another… But it’s very well written and has an indefinable charm just like the Raymond Chandler’s novel… Start with Up to the Hilt, it’s one of my favorite! (a few have painters as heroes, most of them jockeys…( And I found out more about horses and horse races than from any other source…It’s a pure pleasure. There are some movie made after, one with Ian Shane (?) the boss from Deadwood!

  3. thanks for the review.
    we’ve got it on the DVR but haven’t gotten to it yet.
    all things TV are forever evaluated using my Dexter measuring stick.

  4. I haven’t had a TV for several years now, but friends have convinced me to watch quite a few of the HBO series thru Netflix. Deadwood is still the top for me, and so I am interested in what will happen with Luck. Hank’s girlfriend in Factotum is played by Lili Taylor — Nate’s wife Lisa in Six Feet Under. Thanks for the like!

    • I’m loving all of the similarities between Luck and Deadwood- the strength of the ensemble cast, the way the intertwining stories slowly envelop you until you’re hooked without realizing it. All those great things.

  5. I just saw the pilot episode, and you’re absolutely right — the jargon does take away from the dialogue. I thought the acting was great, but even that wasn’t enough to convey to me what was going on sometimes. I was most interested in Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Farina’s scenes, partly because they’re both so good, partly because I knew what they were talking about! Now if only I got HBO and didn’t have to wait for the DVD …

    • Even by the second and third episode I’m still having a little trouble following the actual storyline, but I’m invested enough in the characters and the quality of the filmmaking that I don’t mind reading recaps or re-watching parts of certain episodes (hooray for HBO Go). Eventually that’ll change with time (one hopes), but for now it’s not too big of an issue for me.

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