“Luck”(Season 1, Pilot): Sneak Peek Premiere
Luck is one of the strongest pilots of the Fall season (if you count it for the Fall since HBO premiered the first episode early), but with the show officially kicking off on January 29th, Luck sets the bar high for mid-season debuts.
Horse racing is a closed world. It’s hard to get into, and once you’re there, it’s even harder to get out of. It’s a way of life. Luck knows this, and it never lets the viewer forget it. Obsession oozes from every scene and every character, and not the glitzy kind that is sometimes portrayed amongst the lights and sounds of Las Vegas, but the dirty, gritty kind that wheedles its way into your bones and makes you gamble your life or spend hours (or a large part of an episode) worrying about a horse’s bowel movements. Luck is daring enough to go there, and it’s all the better for it.
But for a show about obsession, the pilot of Luck may not be what you expect. Under the expert eye of director and executive producer Michael Mann, the episode builds slowly. Threads of revenge, redemption, addiction, ambition and love are teased out. Characters make their carefully orchestrated entrances – Millionaire and infamous horseracing legend Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is released from prison and is greeted by his old friend and driver Gus, aka The Greek (Dennis Farina); fast talking trainer Escalante (John Ortiz) rebukes a new jockey named Goose (Jeffrey Woody Copland); “The Old Man” (Nick Nolte) works with an exercise girl (Kerry Condan –Octavia from Rome, anyone?) to warm up his potentially Derby winning horse; the bumbling gang of gamblers make their picks for the day’s races hoping for a 2 million dollar pay out – and the viewers begin to piece together a world of jargon, high stakes, and big plans.
But it’s not all just veiled dialogue apropos of what’s to come. Luck is a visual delight. Bright racing colors of the jockeys contrast with the unwashed masses of the gamblers and the craggy faces of the trainers. Steam rises from the horses as they tear up clods of wet earth from the track, and several times during the episode we’re treated to heart-stopping racing action. But much like a real race, these moments of controlled chaos and beauty are fleeting and leave the viewer wanting more, holding their breath for the next pop out of the starting gate. It becomes easy to understand our gang of gamblers.
The caveat is, of course, that this is just the pilot. Maybe Luck will be able to keep this up, maybe it won’t. The teaser for the remainder of the season clearly indicates that the show is going to get much darker, add on some big players (Ted Levine and Michael Gambon!), and raise the stakes. That’s a lot to deliver on, but I take heart that throughout this first episode you can feel Milch and Mann’s steady hands on the reins, holding the show back. Pacing it. Luck is just out the gate, and it has a long race to run.
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