Luck: Season 1, Episode 1
A pilot is its own beast, a creature apart from your average episode of television, one with its own rules, its own strengths and weaknesses. As I say every time I cover a pilot for this site, it is rarely the best episode a series does, and often bears little resemblance to what a show will become down the line (though this is less true of HBO Shows, which have longer lead times and tend to have shot an entire season before the pilot airs). All that being said, and having covered a whole lot of pilots over the course of last fall (and even earlier this month, with House of Lies), Luck is the best pilot I have seen in quite some time, a prelude to a show I imagine is going to be striving for greatness and achieving it regularly over its runtime.
Over the last few years, with shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, HBO has been moving toward a newer breed of serialized television that can't (yet) be found anywhere else. On most serialized television, including the cream of the crop like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Justified, there are episodic elements still in play. Each episode sets out a goal for the characters to accomplish that is often related to a larger goal but that plays out within the runtime of the single episode (in fact, Justified manages to mix episodic stories with its serialization so fluidly that its masterplots tend to grow in around the margins until the end of the season). Not true of these HBO shows, which consciously play out like novels on screen. Here, it can take episodes for the cast of characters to fill out, for motivations and masterplots to become clear, and to figure out what the hell is even going on and what the show is aiming for. Like great literature, these shows take their time setting up the pieces instead of trying to introduce the premise and direction of the series within its opening episode.
The same, it seems, is true of Luck, which throws the audience into the deep end with a large cast of characters who all spout jargon in the brilliantly constructed cadence of creator David Milch (who previously created NYPD Blue and Deadwood). The pedigree on this show couldn't be stronger, with Milch writing, Michael Mann directing the pilot (and supposedly playing a strong hand in the visual style of every episode), and a cast including Dustin Hoffman, Denis Farina, Nick Nolte and Richard Kind. And if this pilot is any indication, each of them promises to be operating at the top of their game here.
This pilot is dense in the best sense of the word, with depth and weight to leave you satisfied, but also with such an abundance of information and character introductions its bound to leave anyone a little bit lost at sea. Luck isn't showing its hand this early, and most of the characters' backstories and intentions are left as mysteries by the hour's end, yet there is enough here that every character feels three dimensional in a lived in, hard earned kind of way. I may not know what Ace (Hoffman, who is always a heavy weight and looks to be digging his teeth into this role) took the fall for, why he was in prison or who he was before that, but I know he's a smart man, a confident man, and a cynic who trusts no one but Gus (Farina), and him perhaps barely. As I've said, the episode throws us in the deep end both plot wise and jargon wise, yet it still establishes a rough hierarchy, with shady figures like Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind, who is near-perfect in the little screen time he has tonight) and Ace near the top, and self-described degenerates Marcus (a vitriolic Kevin Dunn), Lonnie (Ian Hart), Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and Jerry (Jason Gedrick) near the bottom. And then there's Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) who seems to have been beaten down by life and opens up to his horse before anyone else.
How all of these people will intersect and what Luck will look like in a macro sense aren't readily apparent here. Yet we see Marcus, Lonnie, Renzo and Jerry strike it rich when they catch onto a scheme being run by Escalante, we see Ace testing the waters of life outside his prison cell, and we see races, so beautifully shot that they will get your blood pumping even as your jaw hangs open in awe. There are inklings that the newly wealthy foursome don't trust each other all that much, and I'm sure we will have some double crosses and betrayals when things really get going. But most of all, there's a feel to this pilot, a quiet confidence that emanates from every scene, as if all of the incredibly talented people coming together on this project know that something great is emerging and they are digging in for what's to come. Hoffman doesn't get much to do tonight, but his character is phenomenally quotable, and his two big scenes are absolutely riveting. In one, he is a ball of fury, tearing off his shirt and raging about how he has been treated. In the other, the scene that closes the episode (and left me struck with how subtly beautiful it was), he waxes philosophical with Gus, and the way the two interact is a joy to watch. He talks about getting old, getting back in the game, trusting no one and yet feeling a strong bond with his friend. He just talks. No important plot points are revealed in the scene, nor is there the requisite end of pilot twist so many shows use to entice viewers back for more. There is just a conversation in which two characters spin out their feelings in well crafted dialogue and a picture of who these men are starts to coalesce before our eyes.
As someone who has never paid any attention to horse racing, I found the sequences in tonight's episode riveting, and Mann's direction goes a long way toward making the horses feel like characters as much as the men who are obsessed with them. The emotional climax of the episode comes when a horse's leg snaps during the race and it has to be put down. Mann has given us close ups of eyes, both equine and human, throughout the episode, and so it pays off huge as he moves in on the eye of this horse as the light leaves it. Its a moment of searing weight, especially considering the show is less than an hour old and the horse has been on screen for mere moments before its death. Its a moment that could only be crafted by a great talent, as Mann surely is.
Basically, this is as strong a debut for a television series as I have seen in recent years. Unconventional as it may be from a standard pilot perspective, it succeeds in ways that most pilots stumble. It works less as an introduction to the characters and the story we are being told and more as an introduction to the way this show will feel and the world it inhabits. Its a world of men struggling to get back to their glory days (or to get there for the first time) with a sense that the best days are behind them. Yet its also a world of startling beauty and grace, a world where a miraculous race can turn lives around and where violence lurks behind the eyes of every character. Its a world that I very much look forward to returning to as the show progresses. It can be hard to tell from a single episode whether a show will become great. But when it comes to Luck, I like the odds.
-Luck airs on HBO, and my law school dorm room unfortunately does not subscribe to the channel. If I can find the show in weeks to come, I'll be reviewing it on a weekly basis (though the search might mean reviews will go up Monday rather than Sunday night). If I can't, look out for a Modest Proposal with my thoughts on the rest of the season when it wraps up later this year.
-"You think you're funny? You're not."
-"Spare me the hat dance. Just train my horse." A great line of dialogue, and also a window into what may be going on here. It appears that Gus has been hired by Escalante to front the horse, but will actually be following orders from Ace. More to come on this, I'm sure.
-"I shrunk. I gotta get new shirts."
-"Feed him a carrot." "I don't want to fuck him up." "How are you going to fuck him up? It's what they eat."
-"No one's trying to humiliate you." ""Tell that to whoever put me in this body." "Call Ronald McDonald on that one."
-"You never get used to it. That's why they make Jim Beam."
-What do I know, Ace? All four of his legs reached the ground."
-"You don't know your own depth." A wonderful compliment, delivered touchingly by Hoffman.
-"I don't trust anyone. Not even myself. You, I give a pass."