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HBO letting it ride on 'Luck'

The layered horse racing series 'Luck' is a hard fit for TV. But it has David Milch and Michael Mann in control, and Dustin Hoffman heads the ensemble. So it's got a shot.

January 22, 2012|Scott Timberg
  • Michael Mann, left, and David Milch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. Both are principals in HBO's new racetrack drama 'Luck'.
Michael Mann, left, and David Milch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Even before the pilot for "Luck," the new David Milch-Michael Mann series about horse racing, appeared on HBO in December, word began to get around that this thoroughbred -- however fierce -- took a while to get around the track. And this was even from people who liked the show. Just wait till episode four, they said. Or five.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 24, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
HBO's "Luck": A Jan. 22 Calendar section article about HBO's new series "Luck" said executive producer and director Michael Mann had devoted the last two decades to movies and hadn't done a major television show since "Miami Vice." The article should have mentioned Mann's television work on "Crime Story," "Drug Wars" and "Robbery Homicide Division."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 29, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
HBO's "Luck": A Jan. 22 article about HBO's new series "Luck" said executive producer and director Michael Mann had devoted the last two decades to movies and hadn't done a major television show since "Miami Vice." The article should have mentioned Mann's television work on "Crime Story," "Drug Wars" and "Robbery Homicide Division."

If most television -- even high-toned television -- is a collection of short stories, "Luck" is a novel. A big, sprawling one, with a layered setting and close to a dozen main characters, some woven together in complex ways and many not who they initially appear to be. It's every bit as ambitious and multifaceted as "The Wire," which also aired on HBO between 2002 and 2008.

But was it really necessary week after week to sketch an intricate ecosystem as complicated as the teeming life of a rain forest -- from trainers to aspiring jockeys to dead-end gamblers to the dodgy financiers who make the whole thing run? Did Milch, a reputed mad genius, whose "Deadwood" brought Shakespearean soliloquy to the Wild West, consider making a linear show with maybe a single protagonist and a conventional plot?

"Never," Milch said, in a hotel suite with Mann and Dustin Hoffman, who plays an enigmatic moneyman and one of the program's key figures. "I always thought these were lives, and spirits, which interpenetrated even when they did not intersect. One of the gifts of Dustin's performance is his spirit dominates even when he isn't physically present."

Milch, who wrote the screenplay for the series, talks this way a lot -- a mixture of abstraction, literary terminology and boundless praise for his colleagues. Mann, who oversees the directing side of the program, expresses himself more pragmatically.

"What's fascinating about David's screenplay," he says, "with all these different groups and stories, people's whole life histories and ambitions -- there are so many of them. And to not have preludes, not have contexts, to just parachute into these lives. ... The challenge is, how do you evoke that in ways that the viewer doesn't need Dramamine after 20 minutes?"

Boyhood memories

For Milch, whose temperament is poetic and philosophical, racing -- and cheating at -- horses goes back to some of the human race's oldest impulses. But the show's literal origins are a bit more earthbound, dating to his early years as a kid in upstate New York, borrowing his father's fedora to ride along to the track in Saratoga Springs. (He's since become an owner of horses and, by his own admission, a gambler.)

Back then, six decades ago, he got a sense of how richly interconnected the track's sociology was. "Literally from the time I was 5 years old, and the waiter approached me and I told him who I wanted to bet on," he says. "One of the things I think Michael has executed so brilliantly is a sense of the simultaneity of those worlds, so you naturally flow from one to another."

That's for sure. Despite a massive ad campaign that features only Hoffman's guarded and besuited Ace Bernstein character, the term "ensemble cast," which includes Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz and Jill Hennessy, has rarely been so aptly applied. The story's direction, like the show's emotional center, is all over the place. "I've used the metaphor," Hoffman says, "of the jazz combo, where they can riff off each other but are somehow playing the same tune."

The characters are all orbiting the same patch of land -- Arcadia's Santa Anita racetrack -- so they're connected, Mann says, whether they know one another or not. Viewers who stick with the show will see just how true that is.

Hoffman's Bernstein emerges first, returning to the world from a three-year stint in prison with intentions of getting involved in the racetrack, something his felony conviction complicates. ("You get out of prison and what do you want?" Mann asks as he explains how he directed that opening scene. "Sex, and pizza.")

The existing world of the track involves a batch of jockeys (including a young Irish woman aspiring to greatness), a trainer of ambiguous loyalties, a battered old Kentucky horse owner who seems to move with a dark cloud over him and a quartet of lowlife gamblers known collectively as "the degenerates." It's when the degenerates make an unexpected score early in the series that the whole solar system -- which also includes jockey's agents, security guards, horse doctors, capitalists and others -- is put into motion.

Power couple

Another thing that makes "Luck" anomalous is its unconventional power-sharing arrangement. Mann and Milch are both executive producers, with Mann in charge of the directing -- he directed the pilot himself and oversaw the directors of the others -- and Milch writing everything and retaining the creator credit.

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