HBO switches up drama formula with 'Luck'
January 30th, 2012
10:33 AM ET

HBO switches up drama formula with 'Luck'

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?

Post by:
Filed under: television • TV recaps

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Never new that...duh

    good tip

    May 7, 2013 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  2. gee now that's a huge secret--who cares


    May 7, 2013 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
  3. gee now that's a huge secret--who cares.


    May 7, 2013 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
  4. Emery Yantis

    Gambling is also a major international commercial activity, with the legal gambling market totaling an estimated $335 billion in 2009.In other forms, gambling can be conducted with materials which have a value, but are not real money. For example, players of marbles games might wager marbles, and likewise games of Pogs or Magic: The Gathering can be played with the collectible game pieces (respectively, small discs and trading cards) as stakes, resulting in a meta-game regarding the value of a player's collection of pieces.*-

    Our new internet page

    May 7, 2013 at 7:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. Marc

    Extremely dissappointed – Horrible sound recording...fragmented...boring, actually. Definitely not up to HBO standards.

    February 12, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Nancy

    This show was so B-O-R-I-N-G, I gave up on it about half way through. Very disappointing. Can't believe it was renewed for additional season(s)!

    February 4, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Wild Anne

    I'd rather see a show about Cowboys and Quarter Horses. There's always something to do on the Ranch.

    February 4, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  8. Linda

    I am so glad to see a show about horse racing – thoroughbreds are the most beautiful athletes and they are athletes – they LOVE to run and know when the win! The sport needs promotion as slots and casinos have robbed them of patrons which is dumb because with horses, you can make 'educated' bets, you see past performances, riders, trainers, etc where at Casinos its dumb luck and you know the house has more luck then you every time.

    February 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Patti DiVita

    Horses are why I clicked on this but the first paragraph caught my attention. As they said, a movie or show might be popular– not just for the background or setting, but for the underlying theme. Agreed. However, sometimes, the background draws the attention, the theme keeps them interested, but the background keeps them spreading the word. "Did I Say Thousand Island?" is a positive restaurant movie that's about loving your life and who you are, not just what you do. And servers love the lines in it–the ones they might be able to say on the job. Having been seen all over the world, now it has a mission that involves the water issues. Visit for more info.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Hung lika Horse

    this show was'll get cancelled after the first season...people want to see more action, is this a mob show? or a show on slobs cashing in their SS checks to gamble...might as well make this setting in any midwest city that has casinos...sad

    January 31, 2012 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jane

    Well, do you wanna have more friends?Browse Unlike other sites, SeniorsSingleDating assists you to connect with millions of senior singles for friendship, dating, serious relationship, activity partner and more.

    January 31, 2012 at 3:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. Vas


    January 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ted

    This sounds like a c rappy show for the worst network in existance. HBO s tinks. It never has anything good on it. HBO IS THE WORST.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cstulz

      I'm guessing you've never seen, Deadwood, Larry Sanders, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Treme, True Blood, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Pacific, John Adams, Oz, Rome, The Storyteller, Fraggle Rock, The Wire or Curb Your Enthusiasm to name a few...

      January 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tiz

      Agreed, only for the reason that 'How To Make It In America' was not renewed.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lisa

      I'll watch it only because it has horses in it, but than again, I watch RFDTV, too.

      February 4, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  14. Howard Hawks

    Jill Hennessey, ugh. What a stiff.
    At least she looks like a horse.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. The Stable Called

    Sarah Jessica Parker should get a guest spot in one of these episodes.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

About this blog

Our daily cheat-sheet for breaking celebrity news, Hollywood buzz and your pop-culture obsessions.