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Why David Milch’s ‘Luck’ will run out at HBO

Among writers for television, David Milch is acknowledged as one of the masters. “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood” are just a few of his creations, and his latest series, “Luck,” comes to HBO on Jan. 29 with a big marketing push, as Variety’s Stuart Levine writes. But it’s time the pay cabler question whether what sets Milch apart may be what’s keeping him from a wider audience.

What’s distinctive about a Milch series is the way it thrusts you into the unique subculture he’s depicting, whether its a New York City police precinct or, in the case of “Luck,” the seedy underbelly of a race track. If you’re the kind of person who plays the ponies, the characters and setting are rendered so faithfully to what they sound and look like in real life that it’s almost as if Milch has made a documentary.

But what about the 99.5% of the population with only a passing familiarity to the intricacies of galloping and gambling? To them–and of course, I count myself among “them”–“Luck” will be something of a disorienting experience. From the second this series gets out of the gate, every line of dialogue seems filled with jargon understood by few outside the horseracing world, and there’s little exposition to help you decipher the story.

Don’t be surprised if you understand the horses more than the humans.

That’s no accident on Milch’s part. He’s calculating there’s more value in bringing life to a scene as vividly as possible–even if it comes at the expense of the viewers understanding what’s transpiring. Milch is making a conscious creative choice to bypass what is probably a bigger problem in TV: bogging down scripts with explanations from characters who would never talk that way in real life.

But Milch is overcorrecting the problem in a way that practically dares all but the most patient viewer to tune out. What’s worse, many critics have noticed that it takes multiple episodes to really understand “Luck,” and that’s asking a lot in a world where viewers have so many choices as to what shows they want to devote hours to watching.

That MIlch is allowed to employ this style of narrative at HBO is no coincidence. The network is famous for letting producers realize their visions with minimal interference from the suits that TV showrunners love to blame for spoiling the broth with one too many chefs in the kitchen.

But “Luck” seems to be a case where HBO is giving a producer enough rope to hang himself. Maybe with a few of those pesky creative notes the network doesn’t like to give, Milch could have struck a better balance between maintaining his creative integrity while making some slight modifications that could have repelled less viewers.

Back when “NYPD Blue” was on, the series sprinkled just the right amounts of cop vernacular through memorable characters like detective Andy Sipowicz. But the further Milch has drifted from the heavy oversight of broadcast TV, the more inscrutable he’s become.

On “Deadwood,” Milch’s love of florid language seemed OK. Given the Western takes place in a long-ago age, it almost seem right to not totally understand what was being said. But their last collaboration, “John From Cincinnati,” indulged much more so in the same esoteric approach and suffered the consequences: a rare one-season failure that squandered a lead-in from the finale of “The Sopranos.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if “Luck” follows in “John’s” footsteps (though to be fair, “Luck” isn’t as impenetrable as its predecessor). While the series is hardly the first on HBO to test viewers’ patience, maybe the network needs to re-examine whether it can afford to be as demanding on its audience at a time when the competition seems to be catching up with every passing day.

HBO already has another deal in place with Milch to adapt the works of William Faulkner, who wasn’t exactly the John Grisham of his day. The performance of “Luck” may give the network some pause in how to approach such difficult material.

There’s a huge middle ground between authenticity and accessibility. Maybe it’s time Milch and HBO find it.

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