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Monday, January 30, 2012

The Televangelist: 'Luck' Season 1, Episode 1

And then the horse had to go and break its leg?? Selfish!!
  • HBO.com
  • And then the horse had to go and break its leg?? Selfish!!

In December, "Luck" creator David Milch described his conception of his new show as "the [horse] track is what the river was to Mark Twain. Where you see the most life and interesting people, go there. That's what I've done." For anyone who has been around a horse track (or read extensively about the world of horse racing thank you, lifetime of reading Dick Francis novels!), the authenticity of "Luck" is without question. Despite the dizzying introductions in the Pilot to a myriad of characters and familiar acting faces (Dustin Hoffman, Jill Hennessey, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte) it becomes clear that no aspect of the track (from owners down to the groomsmen who patiently wait for a horse to evacuate its bowels, and all of those in between - the vets, the trainers, the jockeys, etc - to those on the periphery, the betting class, who make their livings off of the races) will be left unexplored.

For those viewers who are being introduced the racing world for the first time, the jargon coupled with the Who's Who of seemingly innumerable occupations and characters (most of whom kind of meld together as Old White Men), in the whirlwind first half is likely to be a struggle. Of course, the positive of having so many swirling story lines is the potential for some incredibly intricate narrative developments as the series continues on. And while there is undoubtedly a focus on the most illicit of back rooms (which seems to rest largely on Dustin Hoffman's character Ace, fresh out of jail and ready to get to cooking up schemes again), there will also surely be the forces of good, who are in it for the love of the horses and the atmosphere of the track.

And oh what a love of horse and track there is. There is not a more beautiful racecourse in the world than the iconic Santa Ana in California, against which the drama is set. Upon it, the answer to the questionably seedy late night cable soft-porn opening credits music (a rare misstep for HBO): forget all of these old grizzled white men, check out these horses! Ah yes, the slow motion shots of lathered flanks, steam rising from flaring nostrils, muscles rippling in the sunlight. It is, of course, a beautiful and moving sight, one that juxtaposes nicely with the dark underbelly of the track and the apathetic watchers who see the animals as little more than Keno dots moving along the horizon.

There is talk of multi-million dollar stallions and "letting out the reins" (letting the horse run its heart out, strategy be damned), but as the second race showed, in the end it's all business. We see a horse snap its leg - something these large creatures are unlikely to ever recover from, and if they do it is at incredible cost. So there you have it it - so long, friend. As someone who has seen a horse collapse and break its leg during a Steeplechase and be shot on the field (when did they finally start doing the injections? Why wasn't this done before??), the jockeys were right to snap at callous observers, "you haven't been there." It's a horribly sobering reminder that these are animals, not just poker cards as they are so often treated. It was a shocking change from the beauty that was so lovingly rendered in the first race, where some inspired jump-cutting and camera angles put us in the midst of the action in a way that caused me to reach out for imaginary oxygen much in the style of our wheelchair-bound gambler, unable to be anything but swept up in the majesty of the thundering hooves and dramatic implications of the results. In the end, it was these two racing scenes that anchored an otherwise unwieldy and ambitious pilot episode.

The decision to not explain what may be considered "insider" touches is bold, but not without precedent (it's something that David Simon's shows, "The Wire" and "Treme" pride themselves on), but it also helps keep the authenticity of the interactions intact. Dennis Farina's character mentions his confusion about the goats in the stable, but Ace doesn't bother explaining that goats are typical companions of high-strung racehorses because (for whatever reason) they keep them calm (I'm presuming this is the reason for the chickens as well). It's not in his character's nature. Other things, like talks of weigh-ins (for jockeys, who have to make a certain weight to be found in compliance with racing rules), the form books, and various tricky trainer tactics to confuse competitors (and bookies) about a horse's chances, will be more readily understood over time, and aren't particularly integral to the story, though they do add a nice touch for those who know the racing world.

There aren't many TV shows about horses. They might play bit parts, but they are expensive and often unwieldy creatures that, like child actors, come with so many headaches and restrictions it may not be worth it to include them beyond a perfunctory role. But it's easy to tell, even in one episode, that this is a passion project for Milch who has been, as he says, "a racing fan since the age of 6." It is a subculture that has not been explored much on film, yet it carries within it so many stories and inherent characters that the drama writes itself. As long as "Luck" is able to find more focus in its next few crucial episodes (to lock in a loyal audience), this may turn out to be one of the best dramas of the year.

Musings and Miscellanea:

- At the start, did anyone else get the feeling of being in Around the World in 80 Accents?

- Honestly, simply trying to remember anyone's name is a burden I needed Ace's tape recorder for. Writing about a new series is tough because I want to be able to call people by name but then I think ... can anyone else remember their names? Or shall we just refer to them as Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Octavia from "Rome" for at least another week?

- Any racing fans out there?

- I'm interested to know, for those who are not familiar with the horse racing world, how confusing did you find the pilot?

- I suppose if you paid $2 million for a horse, you would care enough to want to know about its bowel movements.

- Given my own horrific witnessing of the event, I wondered when the series would tackle leg breaks and deaths on the racecourse. They wasted no time!

- A Michael Vick jail reference in the first five minutes? Already in love with this show.

- Ace Bernstein ... So Hoffman plays (a very different) Bernstein again!

- I actually wrote in my notes "soooooo many old white men."

- "You never get used to it. That's why they make Jim Beam."

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