The slam of a prison door is one of the first sounds you hear in Luck, the hyper-pedigreed new drama series that premieres on HBO on Sunday, January 29. Objectively considered, it should not be a mournful noise: that door is slamming behind Chester “Ace” Bernstein, an amiably shady entrepreneur—played by Dustin Hoffman—who is leaving federal prison after a three-year incarceration. But real freedom turns out to be in short supply for Ace and Luck’s myriad other protagonists. Be they jockeys, trainers, gamblers, owners, or assorted hangers-on, the characters in this strenuously atmospheric portrait of the horseracing world are all in abject thrall to the track.
Given this potentially suspenseful premise and a starry talent list—David Milch (Deadwood, etc.) created the series; Michael Mann (Miami Vice, etc.) is an executive producer; Nick Nolte co-stars; Michael Gambon makes recurrent appearances—Luck might seem to be an entertainment sure thing. But the series itself appears to have fallen captive to the racing milieu, reveling so exhaustively in the arcana of stable routines, sweepstakes procedures, and betting lingo that story itself becomes an also-ran.
Most problematically, Milch and his collaborators bestow comparable gritty, gloomy emphasis on too many characters, creating a biographic sprawl that even the actors’ consistently terrific performances can’t focus. The tale’s most intriguing figure is the mysterious, tightly wound Ace, who is plotting a vengeful scheme to gain financial control of a racetrack, with help from his deceptively avuncular sidekick Gus (Dennis Farina). Alas, for a good two-thirds of the season’s nine episodes, Ace’s narrative fails to stand out from a slew of other plotlines, many of them anchored to situation, rather than personality. A tediously brooding, gravelly-voiced trainer-turned-owner named Walter Smith (Nolte) shuffles regularly into the picture, sometimes to talk to a beloved dead horse, or to interact with Rosie (Kerry Condon), a fledgling jockey with an adorable Irish brogue. A quartet of seedy, mutually loyal gamblers—including Jerry (Jason Gedrick), a poker addict with an eye for handicapping horses—gets a tiresome amount of play. A testy Peruvian-born horse trainer named Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) strides around a lot, though we learn frustratingly little about his life. And that’s just for starters.
Filmed in saturated colors that convey the jumpy dynamism of the racing world, and accompanied by ominous musical underscoring, Luck bounces back and forth between these fictional personae, prowling through stables, racetrack offices, seedy motels, and a few upscale mobster haunts. It takes a heck of a long time to figure out what’s going on, even if you have recourse to the glossary of racing terms that HBO helpfully provided to reviewers. (I now know what a “quinella” is.) The first two episodes, in particular, cram in so many faces, and so much esoteric barn and bookie lore, that I wondered if the sensory overload was intentionally confusing. Maybe Luck was a too-clever parable about recondite high finance and the Great Recession? If a credit-default swap were a thoroughbred, what gait would it have?
The series does become less befuddling as it proceeds, and jargon and an expansive cast list aren’t flaws in themselves: HBO’s superlative The Wire boasted enough characters to fill a small encyclopedia, and its underworld denizens spoke an argot that might have been mistaken for a foreign language. But the protagonists of The Wire had so much idiosyncrasy and soul that you couldn’t help caring about them, and their narratives were clearly linked in a single arc. Luck’s characters are less rounded, and the show’s creative vision is far less coherent.
Yet when it comes to the beauty and terrifying fragility of horses, Luck is succintly eloquent. Each episode portrays a whiteknuckle race or two, and the footage of crouched jockeys and galloping thoroughbreds, filmed from various angles, is both nerve-wracking and thrilling. At other times, Luck gazes poignantly at glossy animals at rest. Early in the series, Jerry and his buddies pool their resources to buy a racehorse. It’s a business proposition, but they can’t help falling a little bit in love with their purchase. At one point, when they visit the stables, Escalante tersely informs them that they can feed the horse a few carrots. The four gamblers nervously hold out the vegetables, mystified expressions spreading over their faces. For a moment, the confinement of obsession finds release in wonder.