January 30th, 2012
10:33 AM ET
The best HBO dramas are never solely about the settings they bring to life.
For example, “The Sopranos” was set in the world of the mob, but was mainly about family. “Six Feet Under” had a funeral home as the backdrop, but was really about relationships.
But with “Luck,” the new HBO drama which premiered Sunday night to much critical acclaim, the formula changes. “Luck” is about horse racing, and if the first episode is any indication, horse racing will be the primary plotline, and not just the underlying setting.
From the opening credits to the last scene, gambling and good fortune play a central theme.
Dustin Hoffman stars as “Ace” Bernstein, who is central to the show and the clear driving force in episode one. In the first scene he is released from prison after three years, and the ensuing car ride sets the stage for a role eminently different – darker and far deeper – than, say, his turns as Bernie Focker.
And yet, besides book-ending the premiere with impressive scenes (as well as a mid-episode moment where he rips his shirt open to reveal he isn’t wearing a wire), Hoffman is (disappointingly) largely unseen. Instead, the focus is on the horses - and the luck.
We see the trajectories of varied characters at the Santa Anita racetrack. There are the trainers/owners – the fiery Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) and the stoic Walter Smith (Nick Nolte). There are the jockeys, too, like Leon Micheaux (a nearly impossible to understand Brit-playing-a-Cajun Tom Payne).
There's Joey Rathburn, a mumbling, manic agent played by fantastic comic actor Richard Kind. And of course, there are the gamblers, with Marcus (Kevin Dunn) as the wheelchair-bound, air-inhaling leader of the ragtag group.
The episode centers around the Pick Six played by the gamblers – the centerpiece of which is the horse trained by Escalante and rode by Leon. You should study up on your gambling terms, but if not, you can still rely on the excitement of the bettors for clues as to what's going on.
A difficult-to-watch leg break forces one horse to be put to sleep, but the other long-shot horse pulls out the victory, netting a staggering $2.6 million payout for the group of four. They choose to wait a day to cash their prize, setting the stage for a likely less-than-happy ending regarding the winning ticket.
As with any series premiere, much of the time was spent introducing storylines that will bear out through the season. Gary Stevens, a former real life jockey, plays ex-jockey Ronnie Jenkins, who enters late and “stinks of reefer and booze" but promises an intriguing role in the show.
David Milch is the creator of “Luck," and it's his third series for HBO. His first, “Deadwood,” was a critical and cult favorite, but “John From Cincinnati” was a disappointment. With “Luck,” he captures the seediness of the industry while highlighting the hopefulness of the specific characters. As with both of his prior series, his light touch with character development is seen here, as he gives a taste of what’s to come without spoiling the surprise.
The premiere ends with Hoffman as Bernstein, in bed talking to his driver and front man Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina). “I don’t trust anyone, not even myself. You – I give a pass,” says Bernstein, wearing a gray sweatsuit, with mini-bottles of Maker’s Mark strewn across his nightstand.
A gangster just out of jail, past his prime but still in the mix…and about to get much more involved. Will you stick around for the next episode to see if he gets lucky?
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