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Milch’s “Luck” is a Beautifully-Told Horse Tale


Editors’s note: This review was originally intended to run Sunday but a website problem prevented it from being posted. Sunday’s episode was a repeat so it wasn’t a big problem. This review deals with the entire series. 



LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25:  (L-R) Writer/cr...

Milch, Hoffman and Mann

I didn’t go to high school with David Milch so I don’t know what he was like a half-century ago as a teenager when he fell in love with horses during annual summer family trips to Saratoga.

But I was in his car with the Buffalo native one California summer afternoon after he had spent the previous day at the Santa Anita track and saw him grab piles of money that appeared to be his winnings out of his glove compartment before meeting the behind-the-scenes staff of one of his HBO shows, “John in Cincinnati.”

He then distributed the money to the staffers as rewards for their work. Afterwards, one of the staffers told me that Milch throws his money around like that on a weekly basis.

In other words, he is one of the 1 percenters who know how hard life can be for the 99 percenters and he shares the wealth.

He’s always shown an appreciation for the less fortunate in his TV shows and it is no different in his latest winning HBO series, “Luck.” The sneak preview episode that ran a month ago was repeated Sunday on the pay-channel, with eight more episodes airing this season starting on Super Bowl Sunday.

While granting that Sunday’s opener was a little slow out of the starting gate and had some jumbled dialogue, I was stunned by the negative review of the entire season by a California TV critic, Chuck Barney, that the Buffalo News ran Friday. Of all the reviews out there, The News had to pick Barney’s slam job?

I know Barney from my days going to television critics press tours in Hollywood, like, respect and admire him and would never criticize a critic for giving his opinion..

But I couldn’t disagree more about his review of “Luck.” And from the HBO promos running, it appears I’m not alone in appreciating what Milch and director Michael Mann have done in educating viewers about the beautiful  and unseamly sides of horse racing and creating compelling characters.

I watched all nine episodes right before Christmas week in two nights because – like a good novel (and Milch is really as much a novelist as a TV writer) – I couldn’t put it down. After finishing, I could practically smell the horses and all the goats and human rats around them.

Barney claimed “Luck” “might be the midseason’s biggest letdown” and ended his criticism by suggesting there was little or no story. Huh?

Let me Pick Six story lines one can follow in a series that has powerful performances by Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Jason Gedrick, Kevin Dunn, Nick Nolte, Richard Kind and John Ortiz.

There is the complicated revenge story involving Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Hoffman), who just got out of federal prison after taking the fall for other powerful forces to protect his grandson. Ace is trying to pull off some kind of elaborate sting, which is harder to do because his potential victims are suspicious of his motives.

There is the buddy story between Ace and his driver and bodyguard, Gus Demitriou(Farina), which has a “Boston Legal” vibe at the end of each episode.

There is the story involving the comeback of a veteran horse trainer and owner, Walter Smith (Nolte), who appears to have a potential Kentucky Derby winner but has to fight the racing establishment to keep him.

There is the story of a group of gambling degenerates led by the handsome handicapper Jerry (Gedrick) and the sickly Marcus (Dunn). The group starts out as annoying and ends up being easy to root for.

There is the story of a Peruvian trainer Turo Escalante (Ortiz, who almost steals the series) who has to deal with Ace and a prize horse, the degenerates and their horse, and a complicated relationship with the track veterinarian  Jo (Jill Hennessy).

And if you want a seventh story, there is the one involving ambitious and tortured jockeys who compete for rides with the help of an agent (Kind) and discover the good guys and girls don’t always win. One of the older jockeys trying to hang in the game is played by a real racing Hall of Famer, Gary Stevens.

After getting off to Sunday’s slow start, “Luck” picks up steam by the first quarter pole (the third episode), gets a little dark and violent by the third quarter pole and has a strong satisfying finish that sets up the potential of an even stronger second season.

I covered a few races in my sportswriting days but really don’t have much of a clue about the sport. However, a good friend of mine is an expert and she told me that several of the incidents in Milch’s story lines seem to come from either horse racing history or gossip.

While some elements of Sunday’s episode might have confused some people unfamiliar with the sport and its lingo, it becomes less and less of a problem as the series goes on.

Should you watch a series in which the horses are much more likable and easier to root for than most characters in it?

Do you love Milch’s dialogue in “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” Mann’s cinematic skills and are you the type of viewer who doesn’t need instant gratification that network television often provides?

As “Luck” suggests, it isn’t always a good idea to answer a question with a question. In this case, the answers to those questions probably will determine whether a little “Luck” will go a long way.

It isn’t always an easy straightforward ride, but if I had money in my glove compartment, I’d bet it on “Luck” to eventually win over many Milch, Mann and Hoffman fans and ultimately  be considered a classic horse racing series.

Rating: 3 and a half stars out of 4


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