The first shots of the horses in HBO's new racetrack-and-gambling drama Luck (debuts Sunday at 9) are isolated close-ups of their big brown eyes. They don't have an expression, exactly, but if you read fear, you wouldn't be off base. The series is, after all, a collaboration between writer David Milch (Deadwood, John from Cincinnati) and director Michael Mann (Public Enemies, Heat, Miami Vice), so you know right away this isn't Seabiscuit. In case you missed the point, there's a throbbing, portentous bassline underscoring even the most evidently innocuous scenes.
Milch drops us into the world of thoroughbred racing (the show is filmed at Southern California's Santa Anita Park) with barely a word of explanation. So if you don't know what a Pick Six is, tough. (He does give you a bit of leg up explaining what a claiming race is.) For Milch, this is a whole new subculture to dig his pen into. Thus far, the first few episodes I've been able to preview showcase a mix of Milch at his best and worst — a vast array of gritty characters played by a terrific cast, but also a script too much in love with its own idiosyncrasy at the expense of clarity and dramatic pacing.
The set-up is that Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman, who is also the show's producer) has just finished a three-year prison sentence for drug possession. A wheeler-dealer, Ace wants back into the world of racing, and he also wants revenge on the dirtbag who set him up.
Good enough. But it takes ages to find out what it is Ace wants and why he wants it (or, as Mann refers to it in the press notes, his "undisclosed mission"). In the first episode (which was offered as a sneak peak after the Boardwalk Empire finale), Ace is presented as a man who knows what he's about, and you sense a simmering tension in his terse exchanges with his chauffeur (Dennis Farina). Hoffman is appropriately self-contained, but Ace's first big explosion of temper is surprisingly flat. Why is everyone so scared of this guy, exactly?
The rest of the characters — and their intertwining subplots — are a similar mix of promising and annoying. No tic is too "colorful" for Milch and Mann. It isn't enough that Richard Kind as jockey agent Joey Rathbun storms around in a rage with a greasy forelock, he's also been outfitted with a vicious stutter. A group of four degenerate gamblers hot on the main chance of that Pick Six are led by Marcus (Kevin Dunn), who, when he isn't spitting invectives at his cohort, is spinning around in a motorized wheelchair and taking frequent hits from an oxygen mask. The most physically attractive of the bunch, Jerry (Jason Gedrick), is also the biggest degenerate — sweaty, ill-shaven, throwing away tens of thousands at the poker table.
There are glimmers of what this show could be. Trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz, with a South American accent cranked to 11) carries his troubles with sweet-faced sincerity, and Nick Nolte is a trainer-owner trying to redeem some past sin. But even Nolte's big moment is a weepy soliloquy that seems to go on forever — and is delivered to a horse.