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Dead Tree Alert: The Beautiful Losers of Luck

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In the print TIME magazine out now, I review (subscription required) David Milch and Michael Mann’s new HBO series Luck, which debuts Sunday and which I loved. Eventually. Yes, this is another critic flogging a cable drama by saying “It’s really good, but give it a few episodes.” And I’ll throw in another caveat—this is not a show for everyone, not even every fan of other HBO dramas.

As I write in the review, it’s an introspective, moody poem about a community of people, with their own private hurts, drawn together by a common passion—in this case horse racing—not unlike another not-for-everyone HBO drama: “It uses the oval of L.A.’s Santa Anita racetrack to inscribe the borders of a world; like HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme, it does so on its subculture’s terms and in its language, expecting you to catch up. (A “bug,” say, is a newbie jockey, named for the asterisk next to his name on the racing form.)”

To put it in terms of Milch’s other shows, this is not the high drama of Deadwood; it’s more like a way of solving the problems of John from Cincinnati. Luck has that show’s theme of connection among down-and-outers and of the community within an insular subculture (there, surfing), but with a more intelligible plot than JFC’s second-coming-ish spiritual enigma. Luck is a Milch show, with his attention to ambiguity and his almost invented language—this is the only show you’re likely to see in which a character figures out he’s been deceived by another character because of their syntax. But it’s about horses, and the people who own, ride, love and profit off them: you will know what’s going on in this story.

Decide if for yourself if this is the show for you, but having seen the whole nine-episode first season (which would work as a last season should it not get picked up), I found it deeply rewarding. Among the reasons:

The performances. Milch and Mann draw heavily from their casts of regulars, with some inspired new choices, and the results are terrific. Dustin Hoffman playing off Michael Gambon (as a mob associate / rival) is the heavyweight title match you’d expect, but Nick Nolte is especially commanding as a deeply feeling old horse trainer nursing a past hurt, an almost Faulknerian figure who often finds his horses easier to talk to than to people. I’ll admit this is a very, very male, silverback-oriented show, but there are a few strong performances from the actresses, especially Kerry Condon as a hungry aspiring jockey.

The ponies. Milch and Mann divvied up the show, Milch writing the scripts, Mann taking control of production and visuals (though officially he only directs the pilot). And the horse race sequences are really like none I’ve seen on TV, the camera weaving in and out—and sometimes under—the crush of heaving bodies, conveying a sense of barely controlled chaos. But the way the show films the horses generally, on the track and off, is fascinating: it has a particular love of the animals’ eyes, wet and black, conveying both a tenderness and a potential for violence. Luck’s horses are beautiful, and terrifying. (As are the races, which convey both the sports’ excitement and its cruelty.)

The poetry. Finally, though, as with a lot of Milch’s shows, its his dialogue that really involved me. As on his earlier shows—even the more accessible NYPD Blue—it takes a couple episodes to get acclimated to the language, as if you’re visiting a foreign country. But as elliptical as his prose can sometimes be, Milch also has a way of using his characters’ convoluted talk to literalize the way they’re figuring themselves out.

It’s a hard thing to convey with out-of-context quotes, but there was one in particular I loved. Luck’s most involving characters are a quartet of sad-sack “railbirds” (racetrack aficionados) who both figure in the plot and serve as a kind of Greek chorus. Each has some sort of affliction—one is handicapped, another gambling-addicted and so on—but as a quartet, they make up something like a complete, functional being. In one episode, someone suggests helping their friend Jerry (Jason Gedrick) pay off a gambling debt. Marcus (Kevin Dunn) rejects the idea, as badly as he worries for his pal. “You don’t make him whole by giving him money,” he says. “Whoever made him didn’t make him whole. That’s the way he is. And we’d better fucking recognize that or else we’re assholes.”

That’s what I loved about Luck: the idea that we don’t start out whole and we certainly don’t stay that way, which is why we need each other to get through the bad breaks that will inevitably come. Luck too is far from perfect, but I found a lot to love in its rough edges.