In its first two weeks on the air, HBO's Luck, a drama about the intersecting interests of jockeys, gamblers, owners and trainers at a Southern California racetrack, seemed like What We Would Vaguely Pay Attention To While Waiting for Game of Thrones To Return (which it will in April). But after three more episodes, the series, co-helmed by director Michael Mann (Heat) and screenwriting savant David Milch (Deadwood), has flipped its cards to reveal the year’s most quietly hypnotic noir. You should be watching it, even if you have no idea how a Pick Six works.
1. Dustin Hoffman makes up for all things Focker.
As the brilliant ex-con Chester "Ace" Bernstein, Hoffman’s doing his best work in decades. Gravitas has never exactly been his strong suit, so you can almost see the petite man’s glee at getting to play a stone gangster. (Think about the twinkle in Albert Brooks' eye in Drive and lower it about five inches.) In the fourth episode, we finally meet Ace’s fellow hood Mike Smythe, played with Satanic menace by the terrifying Michael Gambon. (I don't care how nice his Dumbuldore was, Gambon always looks like he would bury you in six different garbage cans if you stepped on his foot.) With his massive yacht and sexually available secretaries, he is the opposite of Ace, who is all focus and sublimated fury. Hoffman, of all people, has become a model of restraint. Add to this his natural comic timing and his sharply-realized rendering of Ace’s befuddlement at romantic attraction (what’s up, Joan Allen) and he’s showing us an Emmy-worthy performance.
2. It’s a great cast full of people you vaguely recognize.
It's been a quiet thrill to see Mann regulars pop up with tweaks to their types here. Dennis Farina (Crime Story) is Gus Demitriou, playing Johnny Ola to Ace's Hyman Roth as his driver and confidant. John Ortiz mesmerizes as the manipulative trainer Turo Escalante, using what the half-dozen of us who saw Mann's 2006 Miami Vice reboot recognize as his Jose Yero accent. There’s also Ted Levine (the killer in Silence of the Lambs!) as Cohen the casino executive and fellow Vice vet Barry Shabaka Henley as Ace's reasonable parole officer. But you can sense Milch in the cast as well. As the wheelchair-bound gambler Marcus, Kevin Dunn holds down what might as well be the Dennis Franz part, right down to the hair and egregious accent. His fellow "Degenerates," as the Internet has dubbed them, feel complete: Lonnie (Ian Hart) doesn’t seem to actually know anything about racing, Renzo (Ritchie Coster) is pitched somewhere between John Cazale’s innocent in Dog Day Afternoon and mild mental retardation, and genius horse handicapper, Jerry (Jason Gedrick), has a hellish poker addiction that’s bleeding his winnings. These are small lives on the fringes of everything and they are the sort of Greek chorus upon which Milch loves to dote. In last Sunday’s episode, Dunn revealed new sides to Marcus, a deeply lonely man who can’t even recognize friends when he has them.
3. Milch vs. Mann
At first, it seems like Milch's show all the way. His knotty style of hard-boiled yammer scanned as elliptical cop lingo on NYPD Blue and out-fouled Shakespeare on Deadwood. Here’s Marcus talking about enabling Jerry: "So whatever the fuck is wrong with Jerry, you don't make him whole by giving him money. Whoever made him didn't make him whole. That's the way he is, and we better fuckin' recognize that or else we're assholes." Humans talk like this nowhere else in fiction or reality. I could listen to it all day. But Michael Mann's eye is as important as Milch’s mouth. Mann knows light and color as well as any director alive and always had a good feel for heists with a lot of moving parts (see also: Heat), not to mention a flare for shooting fast-moving objects through nature (i.e. all that running in Last of the Mohicans). These two are used to helming their own shows, so their stylistic frission makes Luck hum like nothing else on television.
As a veteran trainer who harbors crushing guilt over the death of his current horse’s sire, Nolte seems like a guy straight out of Rain Dogs. Milch has a fondness for old guys talking to themselves and Nolte’s great at it. At one point, his character, Walter Smith, seems to be mumble-growling at his horse, Gettin’ Up Morning. Then it hits you that the monologue is addressed to Gettin’ Up’s murdered father, Delphi: "I can barely stand to look at him day after day because he reminds me so much of you and it breaks my heart 'cause he runs like you, he moves like you, he's got such a big heart just like you had." Brutal.5. The horse stuff has both calmed down and gotten more accessible.
The pilot dropped the viewer right into a racing milieu so detailed it probably turned a lot of people off. But Milch is good with the slow build — Deadwood didn’t really become FUCKIN’ DEADWOOD until halfway through the first season. Last Sunday’s race, with its thrown shoe and gutted-out finish, was a blast — Ace’s joy was fascinating to watch and his decision to sleep in the barn was touching — but the race in episode four will probably be the best we see. As the score swelled, a montage caught us up on all the plot threads — the Degenerates on the sidelines, Ace taking stock — and the young Irish jockey, Rosie, executing a stunning come-from-behind win with Gettin’ Up Morning. By the end, you figure out what the show has been pushing: Everyone in Luck worships these animals, expressing their devotion in a dozen different ways. As Gettin’ Up Morning crosses the finish line, you’ll find yourself saying "Amen" without even knowing you were praying.