New HBO horse-racing series 'Luck' has great writing, fine acting

Dennis Farina, left plays Gus "the Greek," driver, bodyguard and front for Dustin's Hoffman's Ace Bernstein in Luck, a new series on HBO.
Dennis Farina, left plays Gus "the Greek," driver, bodyguard and front for Dustin's Hoffman's Ace Bernstein in Luck, a new series on HBO.

The word luck implies that the stars are capable of aligning in a certain way to nudge our lives in one direction or another. Luck can be good or bad. It can run in streaks and change in an instant. No matter that luck, if it does exist, is beyond anyone's control.

Rabbit's feet are rubbed bare, favored lottery number combinations are played weekly, and sidewalk cracks are purposely sidestepped by people who think they are improving their luck. When bad things happen, luck gets us off the responsibility hook; when good things happen, we think things are going our way. Luck is perhaps the purest distillation of human delusional folly.

The humor and pathos of that folly are explored in sometimes exhaustive detail in the new HBO series Luck, created by David Milch and executive-produced by Michael Mann. Deadwood fans already know that Milch doesn't make it easy for viewers to get a purchase on his series, but for those willing to do the work, Luck, premiering Sunday, pays off.

Dustin Hoffman stars as Ace Bernstein, a smooth operator who has just been released after a three-year prison term. Although hardly a choirboy, he took the fall for a crime to protect his grandson from being arrested. At the start of the series, as he is picked up at the prison gates by his driver and bodyguard, Gus "the Greek" (Dennis Farina), Ace is ready to get back in the game, with a plan to add casino gambling to Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California, using Gus as his front, because he has to be careful about violating the terms of his parole.

Ace's is only one of the stories interwoven through the nine episodes of Luck. There's Walter Smith (Nick Nolte), who owns his own horse now but is haunted by events when he was working for a wealthy horse owner in Kentucky. Rival trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) is not to be trusted, even by his girlfriend, track veterinarian Jo (Jill Hennessy). Then there are the jockeys themselves, a handsome young neophyte named Leon (Tom Payne), known as Bug; his Irish girlfriend Rosie (Kerry Condon); and veteran Ronnie Jenkins (real-life Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens), battling age and substance abuse to try to stay in the game. Finally, there is stammering jockey agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), who tells every trainer, owner and jockey exactly what he thinks they want to hear, desperate to come out a winner in his own dead-end life.

Writers often speak of the Shakespearean language in Deadwood, and the Bard makes an implicit appearance in Luck as well — not through the dialogue, which owes much more to a 20th-century bard, Damon Runyon — but through a quartet of railbirds who have spent most of their lives down on their luck, only to stumble into a period of good fortune. In Shakespeare, Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Renzo (Ritchie Coster), Jerry (Jason Gedrick) and Lonnie (Ian Hart) would play secondary roles — Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and their paddock pals, orbiting just outside the central action. Compared to the track "royalty" — Ace, Walter Smith, Escalante — they provide a bit of comic relief, plus vital commentary and counterpoint.

Among the challenges of Luck is that Milch steadfastly avoids making major characters distinctly likable or villainous. You can't really see Ace as a bad guy, any more than you feel unalloyed warmth toward the young female jockey or the lonely track veterinarian. The three exceptions are Michael Gambon, Alan Rosenberg and Walter Cox as a villainous trio, but theirs are supporting roles.

There's a subtle and fascinating focus on bloodlines throughout the series — both equine, of course, and human. Walter Smith's primary character motivation is to atone for what happened in Kentucky to the sire of his current horse. The mix of guilt and responsibility he feels is similar to what Ace feels toward his grandson back east. At the same time, Ace begins to exhibit paternal feelings toward a surrogate son, a young idealist named Nathan Israel (Patrick J. Adams), who becomes Ace's go-between with Gambon's character. It's not coincidental that, although Adams looks nothing like Hoffman, his hair is combed exactly like Ace's in the series. Ace knows the kid is struggling with a moral compass of sorts, but you can't help thinking he sees his younger self in Israel.

Luck isn't flawless. By taking the chances it takes, it just couldn't be. In the opening scene, for example, as Ace gets into the back seat of the Mercedes driven by the Greek, he feels the need to explain the entire history of why he was in prison. Obviously, we don't know the story at that point, but it's a sure bet the Greek does. And Milch succeeds in avoiding cliché most of the time, but he gives in at a couple of crucial moments toward the end of the series — once involving Hennessy's character, the track vet, and again in the season finale.

The cast has to be, well, the luckiest bunch of actors in Hollywood, getting to speak Milch's consistently colorful dialogue. Many of the best performances are delivered by actors in secondary roles. Kind, for example, largely known for comedic roles, brings extraordinary depth to Joey Rathburn, a character so wrapped in pathos, self- delusion and self-loathing that he could have been plucked right out of Harry Hope's saloon.

Dunn is terrific as the corpulent, self-appointed leader of the railbird quartet, zipping around in his motorized wheelchair and sucking oxygen regularly through a plastic inhaler. The oxygen is an obvious metaphor for something else Marcus depends on to live: the track.

Gedrick, who has been under the radar for a few years, delivers a carefully nuanced performance as Jerry. You can see how his character must have gotten by for a while on charm and good looks. Now, more than a little worse for wear, he's addicted to gambling, the saddest of luck's victims.

Hoffman's performance is a study in minimalism. With tightly pursed lips and squinting eyes, his face seems to fight against making the smallest change in expression. And then there's the walk — did you ever notice how Hoffman always walked like an older man even in his Graduate days and has finally grown into that walk? Ace plays his cards and his personality close to the vest. It's an artfully "small" performance, contrasting beautifully with the noisier characters around him.

At every turn, it seems, Milch intentionally avoids predictability. You'll see one character apparently set up to get knocked down in an almost too-familiar television cliché, only to come out on top. Another character is so down on his luck, he seems sure to come out a winner at last. But he doesn't.

In the end, perhaps luck is just a naively convenient way of ascribing order to a chaotic universe. Or maybe there's no such thing as luck. Maybe what really determines what happens to these characters is something more inescapable: themselves.