Pick six, exercise rider, triple bug, drifting out. I had little idea of what these words meant when I was watching HBO’s horse racing drama “Luck,” but to my surprise, by the end of the pilot episode I found myself completely engaged in the hard-edged and high-stakes world of horses and gambling.
The pilot is filled with some difficult dialogue that only those who are well versed in the world of horse racing will understand at first. Most shows like this would begin the series by introducing a character who is also new to the world and would ask questions that the audience would gain information from.
In “Luck,” not only does creator David Milch refuse to do this, but he even addresses his refusal in the show through a character that asks questions, like “will someone tell me what is going on?” but then gets frustrated by never getting a reply. I may not have understood every single plot point, but it is a unique and refreshing experience to get dropped into an unknown world and trek your own way through the stables and stands.
Based on the pedigree of those involved with “Luck,” it’s a show that was destined from the start to gain admiration from TV and film buffs. With “Luck” you get the colorful language of creator and head writer David Milch, who was previously the creator of “NYPD Blue” and what I believe to be one of the great shows of all time in HBO’s revisionist western “Deadwood.” You also get the visual sheen and meditative pacing of one of Hollywood’s few auteur directors in executive producer and pilot director Michael Mann, who has made acclaimed films like “Heat” and “The Insider.” To top it all off you also get to watch a cast that includes solidified film stars like Dustin Hoffman, who plays a man recently released from prison looking to get back into racetrack gambling, and Nick Nolte, a caring and seasoned horse trainer.
Judging whether or not the talent of those involved comes together to form a great show is impossible based only on the first episode. Similar to recent HBO shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” the pilot of “Luck” seems to serve as only the first chapter of a story that will play out throughout the nine-episode season.
But there are things we can deduct from the pilot that might hint at the show this will become. This includes Mann’s brilliant direction, especially in regards to the dazzling horse racing scenes that put the camera right in the middle of the action on the track. There is also the fact that the characters all seem to be connected through this one racetrack. Just like how the town of Deadwood was really the main character in Milch’s “Deadwood,” the racetrack itself seems to be the main character in “Luck.”
If nothing else, “Luck” will be a unique experiment that will reveal how possible it is for two great artists to collaborate on a television series and make a great show. The Hollywood Reporter and The Atlantic Magazine have reported that the collaboration between Milch and Mann was shaky at first, which is not surprising considering the 100% control that they are used to having.
It seems that they have found a compromise, which has been not to collaborate at all. Both eventually agreed that Milch would have total control over the scripts, and Mann would have total control over everything else, including editing, music, and casting.
This compromise is very unusual for television, and it is impossible to say if it will end in total failure or great success. But if “Luck” does achieve the great amount of potential it has, then it will truly be an experience that will mark the dawn of a new era in the art of television.