HBO Gamble On Luck

On January 29th, HBO's horse racing drama “Luck” returns to television screens, following its December 11th pilot debut. “Luck: is a sprawling, multi-layered story that comes out of a collaboration of famed director Michael Mann, best remembered on TV for creating the 80s classic “Miami Vice,” and respected producer David Milch, of the late, lamented “Deadwood.”

The show's ensemble cast is headlined by Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman, as Chester “Ace” Bernstein, an ex-con with a compulsive gambling problem recently released from prison. He's joined by distinguished character actor Dennis Farina, best known for a variety of detective and mobster roles, as his driver and sometimes-conscience Gus Economou. The cast also features multiple Academy Award-nominee Nick Nolte as Walter Smith the horse-owner, as well as other well-known names such as Jill Hennessy and Kevin Dunn.

“Luck” is a complex character drama centering on the lives of horse racing and betting enthusiasts hanging out at the Santa Anita racetrack, outside of LA. It features characters from all walks of life, from wealthy sponsors to a group of down-on-their-luck “degenerates” who are gambling their lives away in hopes of making a big score. Producer-writer Milch is, true to style, avoiding a traditional straightforward narrative in favor of a series of slice-of-life observations of these characters and their interactions, hoping to instead show the complex culture that exists around horse racing.

The initial response to the premiere of “Luck” was mixed. It came immediately following the season finale of HBO's crime drama “Boardwalk Empire,” but hung onto less than half of that show's viewers. Critics generally felt the show had promise, and cited great performances from Hoffman, Farina, and Nolte. They also noted how realistically it was drawn, presenting an accurate portrait of racetrack life.

However, they criticized it for having an extremely slow pace and using a storytelling style that avoided any traditional character introductions or giving the audience any entry points into the story. Some also criticized it for failing to explain vital elements of horse racing and betting to anyone in the audience who was not already familiar with how racetracks work.

On the other hand, people who have seen more of the finished product say that the show does pick up as it goes on, and becomes more involving after a few episodes have gone by. Because of the multi-threaded nature of the plot, they say, it takes some time to understand who the characters are and how they are interconnected. The question is whether viewers will have the patience to keep watching it or if the big-name talent will keep them around long enough to get into the show.

Either way, HBO is certainly gambling on “Luck.” All that star power doesn't come cheap and, unless they can convince people to come out to the races, “Luck” may turn out to be a horse that has to be put down in its prime.