TV Review: LUCK 1.01 “Pilot”

The Michael Mann and David Milch HBO show gets off to a running start. 

Welcome to the deep end. That’s where David Milch and Michael Mann’s Luck throws you in the first episode, making no concessions to bring you up to speed on the world or rules of horse racing.

That’s okay, though, because the show assumes you’re smart and offers you more than enough contextual clues as to what’s going on and what are the stakes. Maybe in a year you’ll revisit the pilot and have a new understanding, but in the meantime the information to basically ‘get it’ is there.

The show takes a layered look at the world of the horse track. From the shaggy bettors who are hopelessly addicted to gambling to the jockeys and their agents to the trainers and the mafioso who secretly pull the strings, Luck pulls back and shows the full sweep of the setting.

The pilot, shot by Mann, is gorgeous - one of the most beautiful hours I have ever seen on television. The racing scenes are incredible, and seem to have been achieved by setting a camera on a horse that thunders around the track with the other beasts. There’s a primal aspect to the racing that, even when I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of strategy, impacts on a visceral, thrilling level.

Dustin Hoffman is at the top of the show’s food chain, playing a mobster who just got out of prison and who has big plans for the ailing Santa Anita race track. Hoffman’s great in the pilot, all low rumble and sudden action; he’s a guy who isn’t threatening physically anymore but who has realized his mind is the greatest weapon he has. Dennis Farina is his right hand man, a chauffeur who is the front owner of a two million dollar horse; their chemistry is good and I’m interested in seeing where this relationship goes over the course of the season.

Further down is Nick Nolte, an aging trainer whose new horse is turning out to be an all-timer. His counterpart is a fiery hispanic trainer played by John Ortiz. Richard Kind is a stuttering agent for jockeys, while Kerry Condon is so far the standout jockey, a lovely Irish lass who rides Nolte’s horse.

Then there are the degenerate gamblers, a quartet of bettors whose orbit is shared by a shylock/gambler security guard. They’re the color, the comedy. They speak in elaborate track-ese, the sort of speech that often gets compared to Runyon’s words. Pull Guys & Dolls to 2012 and these guys could be reciting the book.

All of this comes together to paint the track as a living ecosystem; the pilot introduces us to these elements and holds back from too many dramatic reveals or moments. Stuff happens, but this episode feels like groundwork. And it’s strong, watchable groundwork. But now that the track is laid, I can’t wait to see the race.