Luck Recap: Worth the Bother

Photo: HBO

After you’ve latched on to a new drama as enthusiastically as I’ve latched onto David Milch and Michael Mann’s Luck, only to read tweets and Facebook posts and even whole articles declaring that it’s slow and pretentious and not worth committing to, you start to see auto-critical flourishes in the program itself — shots and lines that tell people how to appreciate the series and what they’ll miss if they abandon it. These touches are coincidental, of course; season one was shot in 2010 and 2011, before anybody really knew what kind of show Luck was, much less how to respond to it. But they’re still useful, I think, because Luck is a rare TV drama with an intricately imagined worldview that you can see articulated, or at least explored, in episodes and subplots and scenes; I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that it’s encoded in images and shots, too.

To wit: the recurring shot in Sunday’s night’s episode that starts by showing us the back of a character’s head, then moves or cuts to reveal his face. On its most basic level, this shot is just a nifty, faintly mysterious way to unveil a character and ease into a scene. But it’s also a metaphor for Luck’s  M.O. as a series. Between Milch’s baroque locutions, the slick and slightly chilly production design, and the many regional and international accents displayed by the cast, Luck might initially seem as off-putting as the back of a stranger’s head, but in time the show’s collective camera-eye swivels around and shows you faces worth getting to know. And as you get into this series, you’ll get used to the milieu and dialogue and accents, become fluent in the rules and lingo of the racetrack (if you weren’t already familiar going in), and — most importantly — grow attached to these characters, who initially present as bastards, cranks, and lost souls, but eventually become … well, I better not go down that road right now, because I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice to say that Luck is worth whatever bother it causes, but it’s also a show that you have to study and absorb and reflect on. It doesn’t connect the dots for you, it makes you do it. Milch’s Deadwood and David Simon’s The Wire were like that, too, but they had thriller plots and bursts of violence to keep people interested. Luck mainly has horses and grubby guys betting on them.

Much of this third episode shows battered or humiliated characters slowly trying to build a new reality for themselves, putting the pieces of a plan together. The entrepreneur and ex-felon Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) tries to mesmerize a young company accountant, Nathan Israel (Patrick J. Adams) into coming to work for him and getting involved with his (still mysterious) plan to take over the track and get revenge on the people responsible for his downfall. “Never lived a day in his life, gonna tell me why I did something,” Ace snarls to his best friend and minder Gus (Dennis Farina), breaking the kid’s chops. Trainer and owner Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) tries to recover from the unexpected injury of his preferred jockey Ronnie Stevens (Gary Jenkins), who tumbles during a race and breaks his collarbone. Walter decides to bring the exercise girl Rosie (Kerry Condon) back from Portland and give her a shot because she and Walter’s horse, Gettin’ Up Morning, had a special bond; Ronnie reacts to a collarbone fracture, his sixth, by falling into drinking and painkiller abuse again, eventually buying a pint of scotch with a twenty-dollar bill that he’d used to snort a line minutes earlier. (The look on the liquor store clerk’s face as he unrolls the note is one great character moment in an episode filled with them.) Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Renzo (Richie Coster), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), and Lonnie (Ian Hart) pool their money to buy Mon Gateau, a horse that they lost in a claim to a smart-ass cowboy named Mulligan (Deadwood regular W. Earl Brown); they get the animal by offering $25,000 to the group that Mulligan represents (though I personally doubt he represents anyone but himself!) and another $7,500 to buy his barbecue grill, a bonus that’s really just a bribe. A new character, Claire LeChea (Joan Allen of Michael Mann’s Manhunter), charms her way into Ace’s orbit, seeking money for a program that puts prison inmates together with horses — a subplot that sums up the warm, even sentimental optimism at the heart of every Milch production, profane dramas in which damaged, even cynical people renew their spirits by caring about a person, an animal, or a cause.

Allen Coulter, a veteran of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones, and other HBO shows, directed this episode, which was written by Bill Barich and then Milch-ified by its creator, whose final polish gives the dialogue that loping rhythm that often sounds like Elmore Leonard by way of Chaucer. “Next race he don’t get around the track,” says the trainer Escalante (Jon Ortiz) when Jerry the handicapping genius asks his opinion of Mon Gateau, the horse that he and his friends want to buy. “So if we bought him, you wouldn’t want him back to train?” Jerry counters. “Why I want him back if I tell you he can’t run no more?” Escalante replies. “Guy asks me about a girl I used to see,” Jerry says, “maybe I still got eyes for her, I tell him she’s got crabs.”

My least favorite scenes were the ones between Ace, Gus, and Nathan Israel, who’s essentially a rhetorical punching bag for Milch and Mann, and presumably Hoffman as well. He’s mainly there to certify the forest-for-the-trees stupidity of the younger generation and validate the “old, rich guys know everything” strain that’s Luck’s most objectionable element. Ace may be a gruff, hot-tempered asshole, but he’s also an unambiguously decent guy with a code of honor — a bit of a sixtysomething TV producer’s fantasy alter ego, really. When he offers the kid a job at a million dollars a year and the kid has the temerity to ask what sort of job it is, I think we’re supposed to agree with Ace that he’s a dope for even hesitating. (Maybe he doesn’t want to take a job for a known felon without asking a couple of questions first; is that really so arrogant?) My favorite scenes are anything involving Walter, who’s basically Ace without the money, power, and control-freak tendencies. (He’s taking a chance on Rosie in much the same way that Ace takes a chance on Nathan, but the tone is sweeter and there’s a lot less money at stake.) The late sequence in which Walter works up his nerve and rehearses his pitch before calling Rosie — Coulter’s camera spying on him through a succession of windows — constitutes some of the best acting Nolte has ever done. It’s a gesture sketch of a man humbled by life. Nolte acts the way his character in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons painted: energetically, imaginatively, in huge, simple brushstrokes, each of which contains more feeling than some people’s canvasses.

The most resonant scene in the episode, if you’re looking for critical metaphors, is the one in which the four amigos (who name their stable 4A) go to visit Escalante, hear an itemized tutorial on what it costs to train Mon Gateau, then ask if they can get to know the animal. Escalante hands each of them a carrot and tells them how to offer it to the horse. “Keep your hand open,” he warns them. The scene cuts after successive images of the four men holding out carrots and the horse regarding them warily.

All of Luck boils down to people reaching out to other people, other creatures, and then having their gestures accepted or their hands bitten or slapped away. It’s a series of negotiations, offers, and self-protective refusals. Nothing comes easy on this show, and the show itself is no picnic either. The temperament of Luck is not unlike that of Gettin’ Up Morning, or Mon Gateau, or for that matter, Walter Smith or Ace Bernstein. It’s a guarded and private creature that doesn’t put its feelings on display. There’s something skittish and distant about it. But it’s beautiful and strong and giving if you meet it more than halfway. You’ve got to reach out to it, and keep your hand open.

Luck Recap: Worth the Bother