Five years passed between the fast death of John from Cincinnati and Milch landing another show on HBO. In the meantime, he did produce his ‘70s New York cop drama Last of the Ninth pilot, but couldn’t convince the network to commit to the series. (Some databases say it aired once as a movie, but I can’t find any confirmation of this.) Last of the Ninth was based on Bill Clark’s earliest days on the police force and would’ve been the closest to NYPD Blue Milch had gotten since arriving at HBO. The network vetoed what would seem to be an easily sellable premise, and instead gave Milch permission to go to work on another dream project.
This one was about horse racing. And it turned out to be just as commercially viable as a surfing series concerned with the spiritual state of the nation.
Elephants in the Room
First up, let’s acknowledge that the average person has only negligible interest in horse racing, if that. The public’s indifference about the sport is a part of the premise of the show. (Notice that the stands are nearly empty for most of the races on Luck; they filmed at a real racetrack and reportedly didn’t have to fake this.) The racetrack is dying, representing a very different era of America, and the people left tend to have complex psychological motivations for hanging on to the sport.
Clearly, a major facet of the track is gambling, which enables Milch to write about the larger theme of luck; its fickleness, its seeming cruelty, the delusions it generates, telling some loser he can ride out a rough patch and hit a wave of the good stuff if he just keeps going. Milch had already been pretty open with his gambling problems before the series aired, but years would pass before the public learned just how deeply addicted he was to bookmaking, ending up millions of dollars in the hole. (Asked when promoting the show if he still enjoyed gambling at the track, I remember Milch’s answer as “Depends on who I’m lying to.”)
While Milch was indeed “fortunate” enough to have HBO green-light his passion project, the network did have reservations about letting him go wild with another series. Michael Mann was tasked with producing Luck, and a rule established from the beginning banned Milch from penning any of his famous last-minute rewrites. Deadwood was often written the day before, and the days of shooting, and Milch spent his final few years on NYPD Blue literally inventing the episodes after he’d arrived on set.
According to people involved with the productions, this was intensely frustrating at times, but it also generated some of Milch’s finest work. More than a few of the most legendary Deadwood moments, like Doc Cochran’s monologues about God, were conceived by Milch on the set and fed to the actor right before shooting.
If Luck is remembered for anything today, it’s the death of three horses during the series’ production. Two horses died during the filming of Season One’s racing scenes, and during the aborted second season, one horse died in a freak accident that likely couldn’t have been prevented under any circumstance. (It was spooked while being led from its stable, flipped over on its back, and soon died.) The harsh reality is that horses die easily, and while Luck actually enforced stricter rules than the ones used in the horseracing industry, and had a much lower fatality rate for horses than real racing, HBO was terrified of the negative publicity. Luck was also an expensive show to produce, one with meager ratings (even by pay cable standards), and there’s a theory the public concern for horse safety masked the network’s desire to drop a costly, unproductive series.
As much as Milch is a notorious gambler, he’s also famous for his love of horses. Luck is actually a celebration of the animals; a tribute to their beauty, their unknowable connection with humans, and a horse’s ability to elicit softness from even the most hardened of hearts.
It’s also a show steeped in the minutia of professional gambling, white-collar crime, and the politics of horseracing, which makes it nearly impossible to get into.
He Doesn’t Do TV, He Does HBO
The starting place of Luck, the hook of the series, is Dustin Hoffman’s character of Chester “Ace” Bernstein. Ace is both a legitimate and an illegitimate businessman, and some of his shadier associates conspired years earlier to send him to prison. (Ultimately, Ace was incarcerated to spare his grandson a serious drug charge, and because he refused to give the authorities any information on his criminal business associates.) Ace is out on parole, living with the restrictions of his release. He can’t be directly involved with his business affairs, and can’t make a few seemingly mundane purchases…such as racehorses.
His longtime driver Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina) becomes his beard, the nominal owner of a stunning horse he’s purchased known as Pint of Plain. Ace has a vaguely defined plan to screw over the people who set him up years ago, and while the horse is involved somehow, the series also makes it clear that Ace loves Pint of Plain, that the beauty represents a new life away from the graft and violence of the underworld.
One frustrating aspect of the series is its refusal to explain just what Ace is planning to do, even by the end of the season finale. Eventually, if you play close enough attention, the outlines of a plan emerge, but nothing is stated outright, and the series ended with no payoff for the, oh, two hundred or so minutes dedicated to this plot that’s allegedly at the center of the show.
Apparently, Ace’s plan is to ingratiate himself with his enemies, claim all is forgiven and let them in on his latest venture -- lobbying the California legislature to allow casino gambling on racetracks, a sure-win proposition since California is desperate for tax money, while racetracks are desperate to even stay open. What Ace is actually doing is offering his main rival Michael (Michael Gambon) a poisoned chalice that will somehow land Michael in trouble with either the law or the mob.
Maybe there could’ve been some amazing payoff to this, but in practice, the first season unravels this plot through a series of drab, sometimes painfully dull conversation pieces. I get the allure of stunt-casting Dustin Hoffman, but it’s unbelievable anyone thought this plotline should be the spine of Luck. (There’s also a decision made in the first two episodes to have Hoffman speak as little as possible in every scene he’s in, a foolish move that’s rectified quickly.)
Also here for star power is Nick Nolte, playing grizzled horse trainer/owner Walter Smith. The show obstinately refuses to pair Nolte and Hoffman in the same scenes, allowing the Ace plotline to always run parallel to the more specific racing aspects of Luck. It’s another move that hobbled the series, undermining whatever star power HBO thought it was getting.
Nolte made the decision to play Walter Smith as so grizzled, it’s nearly impossible to understand a word he says. (Honestly, I had to resort to using Closed Captioning on Luck, thanks to the characters of Walter and Turo Escalante, who intentionally speaks in an exaggerated Spanish accent.) The story of Walter, still mourning the loss of his horse’s father, killed by relatives of his former boss who were desperate for insurance money, is touching in a way…but it’s marred by Nolte’s decision to deliver all of his lines through what sounds like a hole in his neck.
They Do TV, HBO, Commercials, Bad Movies…
The true heart of Luck resides in the bit players, chiefly among them the Foray Stables crew. Kevin Dunn plays Marcus, the unofficial leader of a band of losers who manage to win big in the first episode. Dunn is a character actor who’s been in everything, but unfortunately, he’s probably best known for playing Shia LaBeouf’s father in the cringiest moments of the Transformers films. His portrayal of Marcus is the real showcase of his talents, stealing the spotlight from Hoffman in almost every episode. Not that they’re ever in the same scene, of course, since the show’s adamant about keeping Hoffman’s character at a distance from all of the subplots.
This is the kind of thing you only realize in hindsight, but Luck probably would’ve had a better shot at succeeding without Hoffman at all. The scenes with Marcus and the “railbirds” (people who spend all day betting at the track) are far more engaging than anything relating to Ace’s opaque revenge plot, providing Luck with almost all of its heart and humor. Marcus is the closest Milch has come to recreating the Andy Sipowicz character; both carry scars from childhood (Marcus fell out of a tree as a kid and has been in a wheelchair ever since), both use sarcasm as a defense, both harbor a deep longing to connect with others, but don’t understand how to express their emotions. Not that Marcus is derivative of Sipowicz, he just represents the kind of internal loathing/sharp cynicism that made Milch’s most famous character so endearing.
I hate to evoke Entourage, but a series set at the track following a similar premise of a few friends who’ve come into sudden money could’ve appealed to the same audience that kept that show on the air for so long. People enjoy series about friendship, watching bonds form between likeable characters, and checking in on their favorites each week. Watching even great actors sit in meetings, discussing the lobbying of state legislatures or ambiguously hinting at unknown schemes to take out rivals, isn’t nearly as engaging.
So, How Many Headlines Read “HBO’s LUCK Has Run Out”?
There are other aspects of the track that Luck touches upon that add a sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings, such as the internal politics between owners, jockeys, and agents, the weight struggles of jockeys, and other minor details only Milch would know, like the social status of riding in the morning versus the afternoon, or a jockey’s deliberations over taking a whip to a horse during a race. All of the jockey characters (most of them played by actual jockeys) have potential, but their storylines consistently take a backseat to Ace and his methodical, visually dull, achingly slow revenge against vaguely defined mob people, over vaguely explained past transgressions.
After it ended, Milch lamented that Luck didn’t quite work because the focus wasn’t on its characters trying to reconcile themselves to God, something he apparently believes is essential to storytelling. (“God” perhaps not in a religious sense, but probably more in the Alcoholics Anonymous sense of the higher power you have to humble yourself before.) I’m going to assume most of the potential audience tapped out by the second episode, which is a shame because the series does start to pick up some momentum from episode four onward.
I don’t know if HBO is still on the kick of s-l-o-w starts to its series, meticulously building a world before any real plotting begins, but Luck suffered from this arrogant storytelling fad of the early “prestige TV” years. If it had gotten to its point quicker, discovered which characters were the real stars, and perhaps entertained Milch’s beliefs about connecting to something greater than yourself, instead of wallowing in minutia and abusing its star power, Luck could’ve served as a credible series for Milch’s later television years. Regrettably, it’s very likely to go down as the final series Milch will ever get on the air.
Next time...see above. Unless the Deadwood movie happens soon, this will have to be the final installment of the series. If you're interested in more from me, I'd encourage you to check out my G. I. Joe novel over at Kindle Worlds. (I cannot confirm or deny a certain Irish detective makes an appearance in the book.) Thanks, folks!