For those thinking about betting their time on “Luck,” here’s a tip: To maximize enjoyment will require committing to the full nine-episode run of the HBO series, which gets out of the starting gate slowly and proceeds at a deliberate gait. Although the program’s auspices — the outwardly combustible pairing of David Milch and Michael Mann, and a cast highlighted by Dustin Hoffman — will stoke curiosity, the fruits of all that thoroughbred talent are less than satisfying, luxuriating in a seamy array of desperate characters that Milch, an experienced horse owner and gambler, perhaps knows a little too well.
Milch’s mastery of language creates a distinctive world, and the show will surely have its admirers. That said, one suspects the payout to HBO audience-wise will be limited, with some apt to drift away short of the finish line.
No one will confuse “Luck” with a sprint. Indeed, it takes at least two or three episodes before the characters — and how they’ll (loosely) intersect — begins to come into focus. Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein is introduced exiting prison after a three-year stint. Being an ex-con forces him to run his beloved horse under the name of his loyal driver, Gus (Dennis Farina). Frankly, though, he’s among the least interesting players in the sprawling cast, including jockeys, trainers and a sad-sack bunch of racetrack denizens with pick-six payoffs dancing in their heads.
They include, most colorfully, four handicapping bums who reside in a fleabag motel, led by the wheelchair-bound Marcus (a terrific Kevin Dunn), the face of many a bleachers junkie. He squabbles constantly with Jerry (Jason Gedrick), a compulsive poker player, and pores over an exacta form as if it were quantum physics. Then there’s Joey (Richard Kind), an agent representing jockeys, stammering his way through life as a jumbled mess.
On another track, Walter (Nick Nolte) is a crusty (to put it mildly) old trainer with gravel in his voice but a gleam in his eye when he gazes at the fabulous steed he’s inherited. “Guess I still know a peach when I see one,” he mutters.
These are, for the most part, guys down to their last chips, in a setting where women barely register. Ace’s business plans go beyond just horseracing, and put him on a collision course with the ruthless Mike (Michael Gambon), though why and how remains sketchy until the show — finally — picks up modest steam down the home stretch.
Much like David Mamet, Milch excels at dialogue with its own distinctive rhythms. Yet while that proved intoxicating in a period setting like “Deadwood” or a highly regimented one like “NYPD Blue,” the unique cadence requires training the ear — and can feel overly mannered in an environment like this. So when a trainer (John Ortiz) is asked about a horse’s prospects, the answer comes back, “If the bum don’t fall off, they win longer than you can throw a rock.”
Beyond the main cast, a number of topnotch actors — Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Mercedes Ruehl, etc. — keep popping up in relatively minor roles. It’s almost distracting, simply because those characters have so little to do.
In a way, “Luck” has much in common with an existing HBO series, “Treme,” in the specificity of its setting and long, meticulously shot sequences (there jazz; here, horses bolting around the track at Santa Anita) that will be catnip to aficionados but likely leave those who aren’t cold.
Perhaps sensing the program’s challenges, HBO sent out all nine episodes in advance, which was helpful in connecting the dots — an advantage most consumers won’t enjoy unless they wait to watch the show in one concentrated burst.
Even so, “Luck” — for all its quirky exchanges and marquee performers — proves at best a photo finish as to whether it’s worth the effort. Given HBO’s marketing acumen and the gaudy collection of talent, the program doesn’t sully the channel’s prestige. But nor does it reach the top tier of HBO dramas that leave viewers champing at the bit to see what’s around the next turn.