Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) emerges from prison, having served a stretch for offences that this intricately plotted drama takes its time to elucidate. He is collected by his long-term companion, driver and confidante Gus (Dennis Farina) and straight away starts to work towards a grand plan of revenge on the men who each had a part to play in his incarceration. Meanwhile, four down on their luck gamblers set up a complex six-race accumulator that might just net them a fortune, while an assortment of other jockeys, gamblers, trainers, owners and managers intersect, their lives and fortunes inextricably linked to the California race track that will one way or another hold the key to each person’s fate.
Another year, another high-calibre prestige series from HBO. Another thoroughbred from the HBO stable, if you will. As with The Wire, we are dropped into a world that is already up and running, introduced to characters who have established lives and bombarded with unforgiving jargon without being spoon-fed. It is a show for grown-ups and those determined to invest the time and concentration needed to engage with it and get the most out of it. You don’t need to be an expert on, or even familiar with the inner workings of the world of horse racing (though it would undoubtedly be a plus), but you will need to focus.
David Milch, the creator of Deadwood is the creator and one of the Exec producers here, with Hoffman starring as well as co-producing. Michael Mann also produces and guest-directs the pilot episode, bringing his usual stylistic flair but backed up by excellent directing of the actors. There is substance beneath the pretty veneer. Sadly, this opening season is all we will see of Luck. There was clearly much more to tell but a series of horse deaths on set meant the show could not carry on – a lamented shame that Dustin Hoffman eloquently and sensitively expresses in his commentary on one of the episodes.
Let’s at least then savour what we have – engaging and affecting acting performances from all concerned, with Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon, Kevin Dunn and Ian Hart in particular bringing menace, pathos, vulnerability and ferocity to their characters when required. They all feel lived in, people with lives, not mere ciphers to drive the story forward. In addition to top-drawer writing and acting we have knuckle-clenching horse races, the adrenaline and danger captured perfectly, cameras inserted right into the action for maximum impact.
Even supposedly peripheral characters are given time, such are the luxuries of hours-spanning serial television. Richard Kind’s Joey and Gary Stevens’ Ronnie as a struggling manager and past-his-prime, substance-abusing jockey respectively are both given room to breathe, with Kind’s telephone message to his estranged wife utterly heart-breaking, despite this being a character that a lesser programme would dismiss as quick and easy comic relief. Hoffman is right, it was a real shame that this had to end, but we have something really special to enjoy here, even if there were/are a lot of loose ends that subsequent seasons would have tied up.
In short, everything is exemplary. Dustin Hoffman brings subtle menace to his lead role, the four degenerates are astonishingly well-rounded and nuanced for supporting characters, the script is intricate and rich without feeling cumbersome and the filming of the horse races is visceral, thrilling stuff. Sometimes, series such as this can be very worthy, very commendable, highly polished but dull or distancing. What HBO have given us here is a world that is profoundly compelling, that draws you in subtly but fully. If only we could have had more. You can get Luck on DVD or BD right here.
Extras: Excellent chat tracks from Milch, Mann and Hoffman. Hoffman in particular drills down into the merits of the various acting performances without alienating audiences with cliché. He offers an informed and informative perspective on such seemingly trivial matters as the way in which Michael Gambon sits down and Kevin Dunn making himself look like a genuinely wheelchair-bound person. Excellent, valuable stuff. A further chat-track from Milch, Mann and season finale director Mimi Leder is excellent as well, with technical detail regarding shot choice sitting alongside warranted praise for the uniformly top-drawer editing and acting work. Three very short featurettes on the final disc are okay if thin, though one of them gives us some of the supporting cast sitting around discussing their experiences and characters, which shows a satisfying level of rapport among them.