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Luck Is a Winner for HBO

I've never understood some people's fascination with horses. Horse lovers can go on and on about the creatures' beauty, their gracefulness, their mystique. Me, I see overgrown donkeys that would love nothing more than to kick me in the nads. But HBO's Luck, the new drama about horse racing that debuted tonight, is taking my ignorance for quite a ride of clarity. Through the eyes of Michael Mann (Heat) and the words and characters of David Milch (Deadwood), the jaw-dropping beauty of horses and desperate atmosphere of the world of horse racing come to light in what could be HBO's best new series.

Just as Boardwalk Empire's pilot benefited from producer Martin Scorsese's directing chops, Luck's pilot benefited from Mann's. But Mann outdid his fellow Directing Hall of Famer and just about everyone else on the planet with masterful work here. Luck is absolutely gorgeous, and Mann's ability to capture the brutality and grace of the Sport of Kings with mind-boggling camera angles and how-did-they-do-that tracking shots (seriously, how DID they do that?) is staggering. Shots that dart back and forth between a wild horse's eye and an intense jockey's eye only emphasize the tenuous bond between rider and animal, and remind us that these are human beings careening around a track at ridiculous speeds on top of a frickin' beast.

But Luck isn't just about the duos racing around the track, it's about everything that goes on around the track. Milch turns his eye toward all tiers of the racetrack hierarchy; here, they involve the recently released from prison Ace (Dustin Hoffman), scheming horse trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), a pair of jockeys looking to make names for themselves, an owner named Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) who just might have the next great thoroughbred on his hands, and a quartet of lowly gamblers trying to win enough to buy their next meal. In the pilot, we saw how all of their lives intersect, and how risks and gambles taken by one of them affect the lives of the others.

Milch and Mann hit the ground galloping in the series' first chapter, making it our job to hang on while navigating this unique culture. I've seen the pilot three times now, and I'm still only mostly sure of what's really going on. There's a lot of horse lingo and racetrack banter that requires a few passes to fully understand, the pilot introduced several budding story threads right off the bat, and there's a whole stable full of characters to follow, but even in its complexity, Luck manages to avoid being alienating or boring. It's daring us to decipher what's going on, and viewers who are up to the challenge will be rewarded.

It's too early to discuss plot, but it isn't too early to start rooting for the deliciously rich characters. Escalante, the fiery trainer, might not be the most honest man with his scam of doing all he can to boost the odds of his horse (slow preliminary runs, inexperienced jockeys). But John Ortiz's intense performance and whip-like tongue make the character a magnet. Luck is sure to feature many shades of gray, but as of the pilot, Escalante is looking like the man in black. Walter Smith (Nolte) is on the brighter side of things with his "peach" of a horse, a gorgeous animal Walter is pinning all his hopes on. There's something about the way that Walter looks at and speaks about the horse that's reverent, but is it real love for the animal that's doing the talking, or simply the potential earnings it can reap? I'm picking Walter's faction, which includes female jockey Rosie (Kerry Condon), as my early favorite. Eternally five-o-clock-shadowed Jerry (Jason Gedrick) looks to be our walking tragedy, the man we want to see do well but who will inevitably screw things up. A gambling addict who can never get enough, his life is about to change due to that big Pick 6 score. The question is how his partners are going to handle the situation, and how long Jerry can make his share last.

When Luck was first announced, it never occurred to me that horse-racing is the perfect backdrop for a television drama. The sport—and, consequently, the show—has a little bit of everything: high-stakes gambling, life or death situations (poor horsey), match-ups between underdogs and heavy favorites, and the potential for thrilling races that will remain mostly out of characters' hands each and every week.

HBO has plenty of shows (Boardwalk Empire, Treme) that I know are great but still overlook because they seem like a chore to watch. There will be no need to drag me to Luck, however. HBO has picked itself a winner with this one.

Notes:

– What a terrible cameo by Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke, who gets a lot of TV time on ESPN's Around the Horn. Give that screen time to Tim Cowlishaw!

Richard Kind, who plays the stuttering middleman Joey Rathburn, is excellent. The same can be said for Kevin Dunn as the wheelchair-bound ringleader of the gambling quartet. Both these roles are treats for the two character actors, and I hope they get to stick around for a long time.

– I'm really liking both the score and the licensed music. There's a wide variety of genres (Etta James, Sigur Ros) that all work well with Mann's visuals. And how about those great opening credits?

– Pick 6 betting can be confusing. Wikipedia's entry on the subject does a good job of explaining it if you need a 101 course.


Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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This has got to be the most confusing things I've ever tried to watch! I have no idea what is going on and it continues to absolutely baffle me. I watched the first three episodes and gave up. It has a good cast and could have been decent but if you don't intimately understand the world of horse racing, then just don't bother. I love Boardwalk Empire and thought that this might have been just as good but I was certainly wrong...
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Luck may be a winner for HBO, but it's death, literally, for the horses. So far two have died - how many more have to die to fill the pockets of Milch and company? Are Hoffman and Nolte enjoying watching the horses die? Milch owns horses - God help those poor animals.
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No joke!, I did not know Richard Kind and Kevin Dunn were in this. And man they both turned in brilliant performances. Making this short, I once again agree with you, Tim. I fell hard for this one already. Say whaaat, episode 2 is on demand!? Blarg, must wait...
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Erm, I didn't understand anything that happened in this pilot. There were horses and some guys made a lot of money somehow. I'm gonna give up on this one. :(
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I found this show related the seedy side of horse racing. I've been riding and training horses most of my life. I've been on the back of fast horses who have come off the track and have spent time around racehorse facilities. I always hated the business end of it. The horses are a business. That means they will be used hard and if they don't perform well enough sold off most of the time to slaughterhouses for the cash. The reason they break legs is because they are started at very young ages, sometimes younger than 2 yrs old. That is a baby. They start racing them at 2 and 3. Its like asking a juvenile whose bones haven't fully developed to run an Olympic race with all of the pressures that go along with it except you've got a 1,000 pounds of horse on top of those undeveloped legs. So I see horse racing as not being about the welfare of the horses themselves which you finally got a glimpse of what they are really like, but as a commodity for gambling. Not sure I will tune in again. The graphic nature of the young mare breaking her leg bothered me more than I can say. I've had horses go down under me before, never with something as traumatic as that. So that alone caused me to once again not care for the ugliness of horse racing...
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Thanks for your comment; very enlightening. Never cared for horse racing, never seen the point. Good to learn those facts from someone who's been there, especially the horse breaking its leg part - the only moment I was truly engaged, the rest was just boring to me. The problem wasn't really the horse jargon, but everybody else just seemed to be talking in riddles... I'll give it the three-episode trial; I won't hold my breath, though.
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Actually horse racing can be a beautiful thing if they did it right and waited for their bones and legs to mature and stopped drugging them. Horses love to run. Its in their blood. Secretariat is a prime example. If you ever get the chance watch the movies Secretariat and Seabiscuit. Both very good movies showing how special horses are. Its how they are handled on the track by people that make it ugly. I was not surprised that Luck was canceled by HBO after 3 horses died in the making of it. I don't think the producers knew what they were getting into but certainly found out soon enough.
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I found the racing jargon very hard to follow and I know the horse being put down was great drama but I can't stand to see animals die. I hope the horse's life was worth your money jerks. I doubt I'll watch this again.
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I don't get it. I tried to watch it and gave up after 10mins or so. After reading the reviews I wonder if I did too soon but if a show doesn't get me in the first 10-20 mins I'm gone. Boardwalk Empire I tried the first ep of that and was bored! Same for the Borgias but each to their own. I am just frustrated their has been ANOTHER week of no Grimm, Pan AM, A gifted man, Person of Interest, The Secret Circle! What's with that anyway!
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I took 10 min to hook me up. Mann's work is stellar and a perfect match to writer Milch - to some point I felt hypnotized by the show, almost forgot to breathe !

Highly addictive. Can't wait for GoT - best Sundays ever to come ...
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I wish I could be so enthusiastic. I'm sorry but it was painful to maintain my attention during the episode. I'm not at all acquainted with the horse racing world and everything was confusing to me. Even though I applaud the directing and acting that were able to make me feel the tension along with the characters, I was still not particularly impressed after the viewing. I'll try the next episodes but I'm not sure I'll be there all season long (I said the same for Hell on Wheels and I did watch the complete season, so...).
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Me too. Just felt contrived, somehow. I mean, OK, you gotta understand the horse jargon to fully grasp it, but it seemed to me that the dialogues were written in a way that someone was trying too hard to impress. I don't know, I didn't feel engaged - I couldn't care less for everybody on it, except for the dead horse and the jockeys.
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Better than Boardwalk Empire's pilot? Really? Better than one of the best episodes of the last decade? Really? I was going to watch this last night, but I was running late for a trip and decided to pack up instead. I have it on my DVR though for when I get home.
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My wife and I watch this show together like we usually watch shows, but something unusual happened while watching this one, we were silent during the whole episode. I didn't realize it until the end but we were so mesmerized and Taken in by the shows entirety we had nothing to say while we usually make comments and critiques during everything we watch. After the show we had nothing but wonderful things to say about this amazing performance put together by HBO. This show worked in every way from getting angry to being happy to being nervous and then being sad. It worked on every emotion but it was so smooth you didn't even notice what was happening until after it happened.

Great Job HBO, this looks like a show that will be around as long as you allow it to be.
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Like I have said again and again.... TV is the new big screen! Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, etc, in a TV SHOW??? Would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Glad that is changing. Looks like I'm going to have to get into yet another show.
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Wow. Such a great review. I'm excited to watch this now.
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I'm so glad you liked this as much as I did Tim. And it's great to get another David Milch series after the last two were ended prematurely. I would have loved some more John From Cincinnati. Milch creates these wonderful communities of characters: the naive, the profane, the nasty and the mentally damaged. I was sceptical about the visuals of local horse-racing but those doubts have been put to bed. My only issue with the episode was actually with the race. It looked wonderful and thrilling but I found keeping track with the positions very confusing towards the end. While our guy was pinned on the rail he went from middle of the pack to neck and neck for the lead without us seeing him passing anyone. I've watched it through a couple of times and still find it confusing. Anyway I don't want to act like this was more of an issue than it was. Because it was very small in an excellent episode.
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if it's anything like the books written by Dick Francis then it should be awesome - wouldn't ever have thought i'd like horses and gambling but those books definately brought me round - will definately have to give this a go!
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I wanted so hard to like this, but just couldn't. Not even a Michael Mann directed, David Milch written and Dustin Hoffman starring show can make me interested in horse racing and gambling.



Boardwalk Empire is far superior IMO, and much more interesting.
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I see your point. This series isn't going to be for everyone, but I think it's incredible and I love that I've never seen this type of environment before on television. Boardwalk Empire, to me, is a genre that's been done before.
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Definitely going to give this a try. Thanks for the review. I was a bit skeptical about the horse racing thing - horses scare the hell out of me >.<
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