Luck, as the omnipresent banner ads on some of your favorite websites have informed you, is HBO’s newest series. Even before its release, Luck suffers the cosmic misfortune of being an HBO show marketed as a gritty crime series, which undoubtedly carries with it the expectations of (arguably) the two greatest TV shows of all time, The Sopranos and The Wire, as well as HBO’s current foray into the genre with Boardwalk Empire.
The counterbalance to that stroke of bad luck is the pedigree of its creators and cast. From the top down, creator David Milch has been in TV for 30 years, making his mark as a writer and producer on Hill Street Blues and later for NYPD Blue and HBO’s Deadwood. Executive producer Michael Mann has a slew of writing, producing and directing credits to his name as well, including the De Niro-Pacino classic Heat (as opposed to the De Niro-Pacino non-classic, Righteous Kill) and the original Miami Vice television series. The cast includes Dustin Hoffman (of course) who appears to be pushing himself once again after a string of Kung Fu Panda and Meet the Parents sequels gone awry. The rest of the cast is filled out nicely by the likes of Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and Shia LaBeouf’s dad in the Transformers movies.
The series begins promisingly with The Greek (tragically not the murderous drug kingpin from The Wire, but Dennis Farina) picking up Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein from prison like an aged Brad Pitt and George Clooney in Ocean’s Old as Shit Now. Just a side note: It might strike some viewers who are only familiar with Tootsie, The Graduate or Hoffman’s recent work that he would ever be involved in something criminal. Easily forgotten (not really) is that he killed a lot of men for Sam Peckinpah in Straw Dogs (1971) and fought Nazi Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.
Side note concluded. Typically a show with a large ensemble cast of important characters is given one focal point in the pilot, and the show makers can later introduce us to other major characters. This is the case with the aforementioned shows (Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty and Nucky Thompson, respectively), but the Luck pilot fails to do that in wholly unspectacular fashion — on the surface. Bernstein, given Hoffman’s renewed star wattage and dominance of the marketing materials, should be the main character. But he has astoundingly little screen time. Farina and Nick-Nolte-as-Lou-Brown-from-Major-League get equal screen time as Hoffman, as do the minor actors (Papa LaBeouf). All that muddled character development leaves the racetrack and horse racing as the main “characters,” which is all well and good if you’re into poetry and metaphors, but it leaves the audience without a firm grasp on the show. Consequently, the show does not have a firm grasp on its audience. The brief moments of character development feel forced, (one character uses the word “simoleons,” so you know he’s not married) and, try as he might, Hoffman can’t play hard.
The pilot was not an unequivocal disappointment; the beauty of the sets and cinematography are up to par with HBO’s standards, and I learned that “pick six” is not just a football term. All in all, more than you’d pick up from an episode of The Big Bang Theory. But the episode was definitely underwhelming. The characters and storylines do not compel you to watch the next episode. That said, the talent exists to make the show great, and I give it good odds.
Character Power Rankings
1. Gus “The Greek” Demitriou (Dennis Farina)
Farina’s just being Farina here, and that means likable. He’s unlikely to hold down the top spot as other characters become more developed, though.
2. Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman)
Ace would have been number one, but then he reminded me I was watching a TV show — by telling an associate that this is real life, not a movie.
3. Jerry (Jason Gedrick)
It’s Jerry’s picks that win his pals the 2.6 mil on the pick six, so the boy’s clearly got talent.
4. Rosie (Kerry Condon)
She’s sexy and Irish (or Scottish!?) and has red hair. Need I say more?
5. Walter Smith (Nick Nolte)
He talks just like Lou Brown! LOU BROWN!
6. Leon Micheaux (Tom Payne)
He kills a horse by racing it too hard, so this is mostly a sympathy bump from the cellar (he’s not that likable).
7. Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and Lonnie (Ian Hart)
They’re Jerry’s friends, and they’re the salty old barnacles hanging on to the racetrack because their lives are completely devoid of joy (just speculating).
8. Turo Escalanate (John Ortiz)
Turo’s a legendary trainer (so we’re led to believe), but he’s also an unrelenting douchebag, which puts a sizable crimp on his relatability.
9. Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind)
You remember the brother from A Serious Man? Yeah? That’s this guy. And somehow he’s become infinitely more awkward, which reeks of overstylized acting.
10. Bill Plaschke (Bill Plaschke)
He’s one of the more annoying personalities on ESPN’s Around the Horn, and he’s … also in this.