'Luck': Dustin Hoffman And David Milch Debut Their New HBO Drama

Though it doesn't officially premiere until Jan. 29, the pilot for 'Luck,' David Milch's new drama, debuted Sunday on HBO, and if you caught it, I'm betting it made you want to go to the racetrack. (Warning: I'll be discussing details of the pilot in the first impressions below; jump out now if you don't want to know what transpired in 'Luck's' first hour.)

Twice in the course of 'Luck's' first hour, we got heart-stopping glimpses of what it's like to be inside a horse race; director Michael Mann gave us a jockey's view of pounding hooves, straining muscles and dangerous maneuvers. How glorious those scenes were. Who knows how Mann put his cameras in the center of the action, but his doing so was essential to 'Luck's' success. We got to see the poetry that draws people to this often brutal world; we got to see why they can't leave it, no matter how much time and money they've lost to it.

This being a Milch-ian production, however, those glimpses of a ferocious kind of heaven were quickly counterbalanced by heartbreak. One of the horses in the second big race had to be put down, and whatever else it was trying to do -- establish Dustin Hoffman as a TV star, create a trackside milieu, give us a world full of compromised, colorful individuals, say something about the gambler's mentality -- 'Luck' made us feel awful for that poor horse and for the jockey that had to comfort the beast in its last seconds. When Milch's dramas work, they give us those kind of human moments amid the heightened fear and terrified hopefulness, and the restrained grief of that scene may have been the best advertisement for the show.

The efficiency with which the animal was put down was a little frightening -- within seconds, a screen had been erected around it and the animal was dead inside a few minutes -- and that swift demise also helped establish the ruthlessness of the world in which these people (and animals) operate. By the end of the premiere, you had to wonder if the horse was actually lucky. A broken leg meant his ejection from endless striving punctuated by bursts of attempted glory; for the people clustered around the track, no such luck.

Strangely enough, there weren't many scenes featuring Hoffman in the opening episode, which established that his character, Ace, has been recently released from prison after taking the fall for an unnamed (and apparently illegal) conglomerate. This being a Milch project, there was no hand-holding and you had to glean what nuggets of information you could amid the arcane lingo and digressive dialogue. But it appeared that Hoffman's character bore a grudge against those for whom he'd taken a fall, and he had big plans to buy a horse-racing track in order to turn it into a full-fledged casino.

Hoffman's scenes with Dennis Farina had the odd and not unlovely cadences of a Mamet play, but we'll have to wait to see whether Hoffman, who famously likes to have a lot of time to prepare, adapts to the way Milch works, which sometimes involves handing actors dialogue minutes before the cameras roll. Hoffman's scenes occasionally seemed a bit strained in the pilot, but I look forward to watching how he settles in during the next eight episodes of the show's first season, which HBO planned to send to critics this week.

Watching the first hour of a Milch drama on its own is a strange experience; the best way to experience his shows -- especially the all-time great drama 'Deadwood' -- is to marinate in his world, to let several episodes wash over you and ensnare you with their tales of compromised, corrupt people who nevertheless can't stop hoping for a big payday, a big score, some kind favorable outcome or judgment. What gives me hope about 'Luck' is that its intensity and trajectories were apparent from the start, even when I wasn't quite sure what was going on. I can't recall feeling suspense during the pilot for 'John from Cincinnati'; I mainly felt hopelessly lost in that show's thicket of competing impulses and ideas. But by the end of the 'Luck' pilot, I felt drawn to this world, which was full of people who were convinced that, given time enough, they could crack the magic code of the track.

All things considered, 'Luck's' players and agendas seemed somewhat clear and discernible; there was Richard Kind's jittery jockey agent, a recognizable type played well by the dependably good character actor; John Ortiz's apparently corrupt trainer, who seems willing to play the fool if the money is right; Kevin Dunn's band of colorful down-and-out gamblers, who finally had their big score (and that will surely lead to complications within that crew); and Nick Nolte's trainer, who didn't interact with many of the other track types but appears to be some kind of horse whisperer.

All of them bear the hallmarks of Milch characters: They're driven haunted, addicted and often roiling with emotions and impulses that they can't quite master, let alone control. From the jockeys to the exercise riders to the owners and trainers, they have become slaves to the thing that brings them release. This time, it isn't the gold in them thar hills that entices them, it's the unpredictable but sometimes sublime horseflesh.

Whether there's a series here beyond the color-saturated, engrossing Mann-Milch pilot remains to be seen. But if I were a betting woman, I'd say there's more than an even chance that 'Luck's' first season will be worth watching (the knowledge that Michael Gambon will be stopping by almost guarantees that). Watch this space for more thoughts on the show closer to its official January premiere.

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