On the End of Luck

March 15, 2012

The shocking news that, ordinarily, would not be so shocking, is that HBO along with producers David Milch and Michael Mann, have decided to pull the plug on Luck following the third horse death in two years of production.  I understand and appreciate their decision, especially as Milch and Mann are such obvious lovers of the animals that it must be personally very painful for them to feel responsible for the deaths.  PETA, one the most tone-deaf and annoying organizations in the land, are probably rejoicing, which irks me quite a bit, but so be it.  If they had watched the show and understood what Milch and Mann were doing, they would have seen that the running theme of the show was the way in which the horses, with all of their majesty and beauty, tapped into even the most wayward person’s soul. 

That comment might seem hokey and a bit silly, as is getting upset over a show that still airing its first season, but there are several reasons why it means a lot to me.  I have only seen 7 episodes (of 9 in its first and, as of today, only season), but it had already achieved a number of moments of greatness, as well as the feeling (and maybe hope on my part) that it was building to something special.  Still, great shows have been cancelled after one or more seasons before, including Milch’s own Deadwood – which I still contend is not only the greatest television series of all time, but one of the greatest works of American art in history – so why get so upset over Luck?  First of all, as you may have noticed, I think David Milch is the only genuine genius working in the medium of television.  He has very particular viewpoints and idiosyncrasies with language, but they’re beautiful and unique and unlike anything I’ve seen or heard anywhere else.  Because of his background in Yale, as well as unbelievable understanding and love of literature and philosophy, his shows are built upon intelligent and very focused (no matter how the narrative might seem) foundations.  If you don’t believe me, watch any of the hours and hours of lectures and seminars by him that are available online.  He’s also famously difficult and controlling, and is prone to bouts of extreme anger on set and in post-production, which probably makes it quite difficult for him to get shows off the ground.  Indeed, the second reason this show meant a lot to me is that I’ve been waiting five years for a new Milch show, after John from Cincinnati was (understandably) cancelled after only one season  – though I still love it and contend that it might be the most audacious series ever attempted – and the mysterious failed Last of the Ninth pilot.  His difficult nature, his particular vision, and that very peculiar language he uses all combine to what I can only guess is a difficult road to production in a very expensive medium.  After all, HBO asked him to do a show about surfers and he wound up creating an oddball series that, in his words, was about “preventing genocide through mercantilism”.  The fact that luck involved Michael Mann, one of my three favourite directors working today, as well as its cast including Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Kerry Condon, and John Ortiz, only added to the excitement and anticipation.  I actually wonder how much that cast and Mann’s participation had a hand in him getting a show about horse racing off the ground in the first place.

This isn’t all about the credentials and my sad devotion to a single man, however.  Luck is (was?) an extraordinary show in its own right, demonstrating some of the best features of Milch’s abilities as well as the incredible work of a very talented cast and crew.  It’s true, the main storyline of Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) hasn’t yet come together or even been the driving narrative force one might expect, but all of the disparate characters – and there are a lot of them – have all developed so beautifully that the particulars of the overarching plot don’t really matter.  Actually, Bernstein’s arc, which began with him getting out of jail after taking the fall for some business partners and deciding to take revenge on them in a fairly complicated manner, gradually changed as he connected with a woman (Joan Allen) and the horse he has bought using his driver Gus (Dennis Farina, playing the opposite of his smart-aleck, masculine persona).  There were also the four down-and-outs who live at a motel that struck it lucky in the first episode and went in together to buy a horse.  In many ways, this has been the richest vein of the series, despite its (for me) inauspicious beginnings.  The potential issues with gambling addict Jerry (Jason Gedrick) were dealt with not by hitting absolute bottom, but by the loving support of a very acrimonious group of friends.  Their bond is honest and touching in a way you don’t get very often with these types of characters, and though the scene where Jerry and Marcus (Kevin Dunn) discuss their relationship and bandy about the term “fag” in about as offensive a way as possible, it’s incredibly moving.  Richard Kind’s Joey, the stuttering agent, managed to pull a lot out of a very quick development into utter depression, and it says a lot about the performance as well as the writing that the earthquake scene was effective as it was.  Perhaps my favourite character of the show is John Ortiz’s gambling trainer Escalante, whose arc has shifted him from seemingly unscrupulous rigger of races to a genuinely caring, if still standoffish, person.  Ortiz is fantastic at projecting the subtle meanings in Milch’s snarky dialogue, giving depth where a lesser actor wouldn’t.

Luck was also perhaps the finest recession drama on television.  Its myriad of characters are largely attempting to find some way to beat the system, or find some entrance back into it, or attempt to pick up the pieces of what its left behind.  This led to a rather awkward speech about derivatives (this isn’t a perfect show), but for the most part it handled this aspect with grace and humanity.  I am, as many of you may know, an atheist, and while I don’t think Milch is he has a very secular understanding of spirituality and connectedness.  There is, he believes, a current running through human groupings and communities, and he demonstrates the capacity for these people to grow and lift each other up better than anyone working in television.  Those tiny moments where people are surprised by their fortune, even if it is just the caring hand of another, are extraordinarily powerful in this show.  There’s a fantastic race where a sloppy start turns into an blazing run, and the way it’s filmed by episode director Philip Noyce manages to take the breath away of not only every character (most of which are there watching) but the viewer as well.  It’s a moment where something unbelievable can momentarily take the characters out of their personal problems and instill them with a sense of hope they won’t get anywhere else.  It echoes that beautiful moment in season two of Deadwood, where the show seems to come to a stop as even the most despicable characters display their basic humanity when Tom Nutall rides his ‘boneshaker’ bicycle across the thoroughfare.  Milch is better than anyone at expressing the sheer transcendent joy of a community coming together to experience a moment.

So there are some clunky scenes, and there is still an issue of pacing that hints at a possible sense of indulgence on the part of Milch, but overall, Luck has in its seven episodes been an extraordinary show.  I understand why it won’t be coming back, but that doesn’t lessen the sting of its loss.  It had great potential, sure, but it’s also just the wonder of experiencing Milch’s writing on screen.  As I said earlier, I’m an atheist, but I think everyone needs to experience the transcendent beauty that many find in religion.  I understand that statement might seem hyperbolic to pretty much everyone who reads it, but I genuinely believe it.  I have often found that in Milch’s work, especially Deadwood, and possibly even moreso in Luck, a beautiful strand of optimism in human nature that I just don’t find anywhere else.  His work can be grim and sad, sure, but there’s always that undercurrent of belief in the ability of human beings to connect and make all the pain worthwhile.  Luck is now always going to be a might-have-been, but it was incredibly ambition.  I will revel in the final two episodes, even if they turn out to be a disappointment.  I just worry that it will be another five years before we get something else from him, if we get anything at all.


3 Responses to “On the End of Luck”

  1. eliotcole Says:

    I’d also cite the race where Condon whips the horse.

    Nolte’s viceral reaction, the confrontation, then the subsequent discussion in the stable.

    It’s saddening, understandable, arseholish, beautiful and kinda real, too.

  2. eliotcole Says:

    checking the follow up box.

  3. rbk Says:

    Nice write-up. Couldn’t agree more with your sentiments on Milch and Deadwood…and Luck, which was an extraordinary show that ended far too soon. Rare is a show that I want to watch again and again just to marvel at all the nuances. It will be deeply missed.

    And you mentioned his “mysteriously failed” Last of the Ninth – I’ve seen the script but I would really love to watch the pilot of that some day…and speaking of what’s next, did you catch that interview he did with Sepinwall at Hitfix where Milch said (when asked if he was moving full-force with the William Faulkner project), “…We were just working on the concluding section of “Light in August” when you called. I had the privilege of working on that with my daughter, Olivia. So it’s a compounded pleasure. I’m hopeful that HBO will be receptive. I have no reason to think they won’t be.”

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