Anyone still wondering how Rupert Murdoch got movie legend Dustin Hoffman to front the launch of his Sky Atlantic channel now knows the answer: Luck.
Yes, a quarter of a century since his only other TV role (for trivia fans it was playing Will Loman in an 80’s adaption of Death of a Salesman), Hoffman returns to the small screen as Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, a charismatic gambler in a provocative HBO drama set at a Californian race-track. Luck, which has its UK premiere on Sky Atlantic this Saturday (18 Feb) represents a significant punt for HBO who have invested heavily in an a heavy-hitting acting, directorial and writing team.
Joining Hoffman on the cast are Nick Nolte playing mild-mannered horse trainer Walter Smith; Dennis Farina playing Ace’s loyal driver, Gus ; Michael Gambon (making his first US series appearance), cast as Bernstein’s shady nemesis Mike and highly rated young British actor Brett Aspinall who plays apprentic jockey, Bug Boy. On the other side of the camera, meanwhile, is feted film director Michael Mann (Responsible for Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice among other hits) who directs the season opener and writer David Milch, who created HBO’s hit western series Deadwood.
If the buzz I encountered after watching the preview in LA last month is anything to go by then Luck is set for a sustained run. The huge number of billboards dedicated to it in and around Hollywood and the fact it has already been commissioned for a second season on the strength of first few episodes will see to that. But, as to be expected from programmers also responsible for slow-burn TV such as The Wire and The Sopranos, Luck will not appeal to those who want spoon-fed drama. From the surreal opening credits to the introduction of multiple-characters in quick succession, Luck’s opening episode is thin on plot and heavy on familiarizing the viewer with a race-track, gambling sub-culture that many will struggle to identify with.
If the buzz I encountered after watching the preview in LA last month is anything to go by then Luck is set for a sustained run. The huge number of billboards dedicated to it in and around Hollywood and the fact it has already been commissioned for a second season on the strength of first few episodes will see to that.
The basic storyline revolves around Bernstein who emerges from a three-year prison sentence with plans to develop a race-track into a casino and with an axe to grind with those he deems responsible for his incarceration. The storyline takes us to the art-deco track Santa Anita Park, where we meet a host of characters including a trio of track-regulars, gambling addict Jerry; the wheel-chair bound Marcus and the anxious, stressed out Jerry. The three are obsessively going over their bet selections for the day in the hope of hitting it big. We are also introduced to Walter (Nolte) slowly prepping a horse for an imminent race; an attractive vet called Gill; Cajun jockey, Leon; Irish exercise trainer Rosie and trainer Turo Escalante. Bernstein, driven by his loyal assistant Gus, is in Vegas plotting his return to the big-time . He meets an old associate DeRossi to explain his plan to build a slot-machine casino at Santa Anita and we learn more details about how Bernstein was put in prison due to him being forced to take the rap for another man.
As we cut between the race-track and Las Vegas, we are met with intermittent yet exhilarating and beautifully shot close-ups of a horse race in full progress. This ups the pace of the episode, a necessary device to counter the slow-paced character drama unfolding in the other scenes. This is all classic HBO and it’s to the channel’s credit that it cares less about initial viewing figures and more about producing high quality shows that build loyalty and critical acclaim over time. With the number of Bafta and Emmy wins HBO has to its name, and the way shows such as The Wire are now viewed as art forms on a par with the novels of Charles Dickens, it clearly knows what it is doing.
As with HBO’s previous shows, you need to give Luck a few episodes before deciding which side of the coin you are on. But as a challenging, visually stunning and brilliantly acted slice of TV drama, I think many of those who give up now will be buying the box-sets in a year’s time regretting they didn’t stick with it.
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