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TV Review: Luck – “Pilot”

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The pilot episode of HBO’s Luck, a new horse racing series, introduces a lot of characters, and isn’t always clear on their role in the story. Most central may be Ace (Dustin Hoffman, I Heart Huckabees, Tootsie), who is released from a three year prison stint, in which he took the fall for an entire organization. Whether Ace is on the up and up with his old colleague (Alan Rosenberg, The Guardian, Cybill) is unknown, but Ace is definitely not keeping his activities legal, pursuing the secret purchase of a racetrack, and using his assistant/pal Gus, a.k.a. The Greek (Dennis Farina, Law & Order, Snatch), as a front to buy a horse. Ace also seems angry.

Hoffman has never starred in a television series before, and it’s amazing to get someone with his level of talent on the small screen every week. Ace is a fuzzy character, a man of few words, but Hoffman conveys much with a glance or a tone. He’s a tortured character whose motivations are incredibly murky to the audience, and thus, should be a rich, rewarding, role for Hoffman to play. With Rosenberg and Farina on board, too, both of whom are great with finding the comedy in dramatic moments, this is probably going to be the most central storyline, and a good one at that. It also, after just the first episode, draws one in quite completely.

Ace’s, or rather, the Greek’s, horse is trained by Escalante (John Ortiz, The Job, American Gangster), who is definitely not a nice man. Unlike Ace, Escalante wears his temper on his sleeve. He is well respected as a trainer, so perhaps his ability to do a great job is what draws people to work with him; it’s certainly not a sunny disposition. But then again, it’s entirely possible, given the circumstances around which his anger occurs, that perhaps Escalante isn’t a bad guy. He could just be driven, and take his job very seriously. It’s hard to tell. Though, going by gut, the first impression of him, as a world class jerk, will probably pan out.

The subject of Escalante’s rage in the pilot of Luck is a jockey named Leon (Tom Payne, Waterloo Road), who somehow stays cheery despite getting it from both sides. The other side being the stereotypical, foul-mouthed, bully of an agent named Joey (Richard Kind, Spin City, Burn Notice). Joey and Leon are polar opposites in their outlook on life and how they treat others. As challenges arise, it will be interesting to see if either ones’ outlook rubs off on the other or if they can continue to work together despite such a major personality clash.

Also competing in the racing arena is an old horse owner named Walter (Nick Nolte, Warrior, The Thin Red Line) who thinks he has found himself a new prize winner. While the animal is not yet ready to race, Walter has high hopes. What is Walter’s story? Not many clues are present in the episode. He is shown talking to horses and employees, indicating a long history at the track which lends viewers to trust that he probably knows the game quite well. But that’s about it. Will his steed be a rival for Ace’s horse? Or will Walter’s story progress in a different direction?

Finally, there is also a group of gamblers who take a long-shot and win big in the pilot. The ringleader of the gang seems to be Marcus (Kevin Dunn, Transformers, Samantha Who?), though the luck and genius brain that chooses said victors is all Jerry (Jason Gedrick, Desperate Housewives, Backdraft). The other two, Lonnie (Ian Hart, Dirt, Finding Neverland) and Renzo (Ritchie Coster, The Dark Knight) have less obvious roles so far in Luck. But it seems like their story hasn’t even started yet, as the four don’t cash in their winnings by the end of the hour.  Likely, the point of these guys is to dwell on what good luck and instant wealth does to people, and so they are not yet well defined or predictable.

Luck has a lot of things going for it. For one, it’s on HBO, so it will be allowed a lot of freedom to do what it wants. If past series are any indication, Luck will be big and showy, but have plenty of nuance, and unexpected happenings. Secondly, the cast is terrific. Looking at the credits of just those listed above, plus all of the smaller parts that cannot be covered in a reasonable length review, means a lot of interesting, deep characters. Surely, their skills will be put to good use, and the tools are here for a lot of rich stories.

The world of Luck is also very vivid. It is painted with detail, all of it seemingly authentic. Even without experience in the world of horse racing, it’s easy to see that a lot of care and research goes into the setting and roles. It’s definitely very tuned into a specific place and time, with the actors easily inhabiting the world like they’ve always been there. Which makes it seem that the realism level is high, a big draw.

However, this last plus is also a weakness, at least in the pilot. It is nice that Luck trusts viewers to think on their own, but a little more exposition would be nice. Instead, the story begins with everyone and everything already in place, and spends little time walking potential fans through it all. It’s very confusing, taking at least a half hour to even begin to grasp what is going on. The lingo is a mystery, and the rules of the race track and the betting that goes on there are not obvious. The characters understand everything so well that they have no need to explain it to each other, and by extension, the audience. Luck presents a nut very hard to crack into.

This could excite viewers. HBO has an intelligent group of subscribers who expect a lot from their programming. The Luck pilot could be a gamble that will pay off, if enough people are motivated to give the show the effort needed to get into it. As there are so many high quality aspects of the production, there is motivation to give it a chance. Repeat viewings and further episodes will probably make things quite a bit clearer. So despite a confusing start, Luck will be a winner, if viewers choose to turn into fans.

Any review of the Luck “Pilot” would be remiss without taking a moment to dwell on the animals so central to the story. In the first episode, Leon’s steed breaks his leg and must be put down. The camera lingers on the horse’s eye, allowing viewers a peek into his soul. Perhaps the audience won’t have the personal connection the character of Leon has with the death, but the director’s choices bring them pretty darn close. It’s incredibly moving.

This could actually hurt Luck because that sequence calls into question the morality of horse racing as a sport. With fans caring about the horses so early and so deeply, will they be able to watch them pushed to their limits week after week? The scene above certainly makes this reviewer want to campaign for banning the entire industry on the grounds that it seems like cruel torture. Will Luck be about characters that must be despised? Or will the other side be presented?

Overall, the series is off to a great start, and gets better the more one dwells upon the episode. New installments will first run Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and the show has already been renewed for a second season.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com
  • Billy Blatz

    The roles you choose to identify Farina by are bizarre. And who says HBO has intelligent viewers? Look how long Entourage lasted. And good luck getting horse racing banned

  • http://jeromewetzeltv.blogspot.com/ Jerome Wetzel

    Billy Blatz – Thanks for your comments! You are right about Entourage, but I was talking about an overall trend for HBO dramas (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, etc.). I also completely agree with your assertion that horse racing probably won’t be banned. I just mentioned the emotion it evokes in the scene.

    As for which roles I choose for Farina, here’s my (completely unscientific, subjective) formula. I look the actor up on IMDB. Since I write about TV, I look for the actor’s TV roles first, to see if there is a substantial one, preferably in the last ten years. Farina did 46 episodes of Law & Order from 2004-2006, so that qualifies. Knowing Farina is primarily a film actor, going by his credits, I also like to toss in a film. For that I look at the ‘Known For’ at the top, as well as the last dozen or so movies to see if there’s a part that stands out or I remember him from, again, preferably in the last decade or so. Snatch is his #1 Known For role on IMDB, and seeing nothing more recent that stands out more, I chose that. I personally remember him vividly from Big Trouble, but as that isn’t a huge movie lots of people have seen, I skipped that. Hope that answers your concern. :)