S1E2: Based on the first episode of HBO’s new drama Luck, I think it is no grand leap to assume that the show’s meager ratings will not be seeing a huge spike anytime soon. The subject matter, and the way it is delivered to audiences, is alienating to those not already well versed in the world of horserace gambling. As our TV editor, Kelsea Stahler, pointed out in her review of the pilot, Luck places a heavy focus on the emotionality inherent in horseracing—to the trainers, the jockeys, the gamblers, everybody. But interspersed are jargon-heavy conversations that act to further the plot and set us in a vividly realistic depiction of the scenery. To those of us who are complete strangers to the racetrack, these conversations do more harm than good.
But the second episode, while not completely free of this problem (I won’t exactly call it a flaw, because the show doesn’t seem at all oblivious to what it is doing), is a clear indicator of why HBO might have decided to pick up the series for a second season. We already guessed that Luck’s strongest selling point would be its cast. Film legends like Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Dennis Farina lead the list of players in this drama. And even if the premise doesn’t grip you inherently, they will. The cast—and the characters—are exemplary.
“Like the whole state economy, the track is desperate for new streams of revenue. The perfect f**king Trojan Horse.” – Ace
We see Hoffman’s Chester “Ace” Bernstein, just freed from a three-year stint in jail—all because he took the fall for his partner (the yet-unseen Michael Gambon)—getting readily back into the game. But as we learned in the pilot, Bernstein is not the man he used to be. His mind is going. His temper is unkempt. I predict a long, slow demolition of this character from the inside out. This week, Bernstein institutes a meeting with potential investors for his racetrack purchase—but his agitated demeanor is a deterrent to the men. Right by Ace’s side is the wide-eyed thug Gus (Farrina), whose experience with gambling is akin to that of the confused viewer I described above.
Although we haven’t seen Gus lose his cool just yet—he actually seems the kindest of the characters we’ve met so far—his one-off comment about plugging Ace’s betrayer Michael (Gambon) and Ace’s description of his assistant as “hot under the collar” might suggest a background in playing rough. It also might suggest a degree of projecting for Ace, whose collar is perpetually on fire. As the duo struggles to find its place back in the underworld, I find their scenes together to be delightfully classic. They’re an old school formula: Rocky and Mugsy. The small, shot-calling brains with the hot temper, and his mild-mannered, milder-minded muscle. A line of dialogue in the pilot makes the pairing really endearing: “I don’t trust anybody. Even myself,” says Bernstein, concluding to Gus: “You get a pass.” Unconditional (and unlikely) friendships amid worlds of deceit and corruption are terrific story devices. I’m looking forward to see how far this one takes us. “I appreciate the good fortune we’ve had, but ball-breaking over my wardrobe is not my idea of fun. And my mental adroitness is dulled by this constant negativity!” – Lonnie In the pilot, the band of Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and the Ringo the group, Lonnie (Ian Hart), were mostly just noise to wade through due to the heavy amount of technical chitchat about the gambling process. But the second episode boosted them up to a dynamic force, thrusting them at odds with one another due to divergent perspectives on how to handle their newfound riches. Marcus, the unofficial leader of the group and rejecter of all ideas not his own, insists that they all lay low with their intake for the time being, as not to attract any attention. The others succumb to various weaknesses. Jerry, apparently a gambling addict (there has to be at least one in a show like this) spends an inordinate amount of time losing at a poker table to a trash talking high roller. Lonnie lets two women get the better of him—they beat him senseless after he suggests that he’ll be cutting off ties (and funds). There’s something fantastically interesting about this aspect of the series: four men—not friends, not family, not coworkers…four men disconnected by everything except for their partnership in what might well prove to be a problematic financial deal—are bound to one another and forced to wade through the consequences together. Their actions affect each other (as Marcus chants throughout the episode), so they need to keep tabs on one another. When a badly injured Lonnie is delivered to the neighboring motel doors of Marcus and Renzo, the two anxiously take him into the room to tend to him. They’re all in this together, despite having absolutely no emotional connection to one another. Yet.
“You know what breaking legs sounds like? Branches snapping…” – Walter
But the most wonderful part of the show, as we might have guessed from the first episode, is Nick Nolte’s Walter Smith. A pained, guilt-driven man whose heart bleeds endlessly. He loves horses. He can’t get over the murder of a prized racehorse who cost some business associates a good deal of money. And his heart bleeds (thought slightly less so) for young rider Rosie (Kerry Condon), whom he looks into helping out professionally after he refuses to let her handle the horse he most prizes presently. Smith is a man dipped in such a thick sap of sadness that every word he utters is so valuable. I cannot see this character getting boring, or alienating. He is pure, raw emotion, and his will be the journey—if only one rears—that keeps us adhered to the show cathartically. The remaining characters are interesting in their own right. Richard Kind plays Joey Rathburn, a version of his regular type amped up with more anxiety than he can handle. His business partner, trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) is as hotheaded and distrustful as Bernstein is said to be. He chastises his good-natured jockey, the young Cajun boy Leon Micheaux (Tom Payne) for “flapping his mouth” about his horse’s ability. Escalante values the secrecy of his horse’s abilities in order to keep bets on and barters for him few and far between. When word gets out about the horse’s ability and a cowboy named Mulligan wagers a purchase, Escalante is furious—and Renzo, whose mission was to buy the horse himself, is let down. After the pilot, the second episode of Luck is a refreshing, deeply human piece of work that promises good things for the future of the show. What did you think of the episode? Are those of you with limited knowledge of the gambling world deterred by the show? How about those who know a lot about gambling—is the show getting it right? Let us know in the comments section, or on Twitter (@MichaelArbeiter).