With their fairly unlimited budgets and many resources at their disposal, the producers at HBO know how to be risk takers. They aren’t afraid of shelling out the big bucks or giving the audience something edgy, unexpected and complicated. Their new series “Luck” certainly hits all of these marks.
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Centered around the world of horseracing, the pilot gives the viewer a taste of nearly every aspect of life at the track. The story follows the lives of those who call horseracing their domain: from the spectators to the gamblers to the people who handle the horses back in their stalls. Amid all this is Dustin Hoffman (“Meet the Fockers”) as ex-con Chester “Ace” Bernstein, Ace’s driver Gus (Dennis Farina, “Saving Private Ryan”) and Gus’s boss, Turo Escalante (John Oritz, “American Gangster”). The three are all mixed up in the horseracing industry, and they have to deal with four renegade gamblers who accidentally stumble onto some nefarious business tied to Escalante.
“Luck” certainly isn’t concerned with giving its audience a typical pilot, true to form of any HBO venture. Instead of the usual mindless exposition that drags many pilots beyond a reasonable level of entertainment, “Luck” simply bypasses the issue altogether. The pilot drops the viewer directly into the middle of the relatively unfamiliar world of horseracing, with no thought to explain anything.
From the first scene of Hoffman in jail through roughly the next hour, the lack of explanation leaves the viewer in an unfamiliar terrain with no idea how to navigate through the politics — both upfront and backdoor — or the bewildering jargon.
It’s a rather refreshing approach, as it forces the viewer to think carefully through the dialogue, a credit to the viewer and a tactic not commonly seen in pilots. Even with the refusal to dumb anything down, there is a certain point where the endless confusion becomes less refreshing and more annoying. HBO is certainly capable of coming up with a more delicate way of throwing in some exposition. We’re not asking to have it thrown in our faces, but something more substantial to grasp would be appreciated.
But what really makes “Luck” as hard to ignore as the gunshot that sends the thoroughbreds racing through the gate? Academy Award-nominated director Michael Mann’s (“The Insider”) compelling camerawork catches the eye immediately. He contrasts the natural beauty of the horses, the crafted beauty of the track and the gritty reality of the underground tactics in a seamless blend. The entire pilot is stunningly filmed and enjoyable to watch, as Mann manages to navigate effortlessly around the intertwined storylines to create a unified pilot.
The actors aren’t slouches either — most especially Hoffman, who creates absorbing tension with one pucker of his graying brow. It’s a pleasure to see him in the role, one he commands with ease and seems particularly suited to. Or maybe Hoffman just pulls that off whatever he happens to be in.
Despite the obvious educational problem, the pilot is compelling from start to finish. It ropes in viewers with several reasons to return, including some serious acting and directing chops. The series might just end up being as enigmatic as gambling itself: once entrenched in the world, it’ll be a hard habit to kick.