HBO’s “Luck” – Winners and Losers

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If you can’t see the embedded video, a behind-the-scenes look at HBO’s series “Luck,” click here.

HBO gave us a sneak-peek in December at the first episode of its new series “Luck.” This episode will air again when the series begins its run on Jan. 29.

“Luck” is set at and around Santa Anita. Dustin Hoffman plays a gangster just out of prison. Nick Nolte plays an Kentucky hardboot trying to keep his potential Derby horse under wraps. As a bonus, performances from jockeys like Gary Stevens and Chantal Sutherland are so smooth, you’ll do a double-take when you see them.

Still, “Luck” is not a “sunny skies and mint julep” view of horse racing. I don’t think anyone expected that anyway.

Spoilers ahead – and dark humor

The thing is? Of all those characters? The ones I like, I’m worried half sick about. The ones I don’t? They seem to have leading roles.

Bet on it

In the first episode, a Pick Six is the Holy Grail. As well as the dream that a certain horse will come along and be The One and transform your life like a bolt of lightning on the road to Damascus.

Plus, I suspect the show will explore the delicate nature of winning – does it really answer prayers or cause bigger problems, even heartbreak?

Gritty side of racing

An early scene of Jill Hennessy’s veterinarian character pulling on the long rubber glove to check a colicky horse sets some of the tone, in more ways than one.

We see crafty trainers. Hungry or jaded jockeys.Bullies and sycophants. Criminals and innocents.

Then, we see a socially clumsy jockey who’s a genius in the irons. A jockey who might take a second chance. A gambling addict who looks up from the tip sheets long enough to spot a quality horse and marvel in a nearly spiritual reverie.

As with “John from Cincinnati,” the production team mixes the sacred with the profane, although the characters sometimes make me wonder if it isn’t the other way around. Because there’s certainly a lot of “profane.”

Viewer adrift

Viewers and readers like to identify with a sympathetic character who’ll be an “avatar” through a story.  That viewpoint character should be someone we can root for, someone we care about.

So, should we root for the resentful gangster who seems to be the lead character? I admit I’m curious how he plans his return to glory, but I don’t think I’d invite him to my barn party. I’d be too scared to ask him to leave.

The crusty old horse trainer? I’m scared witless for his horse.

I sense redemption coming for one of the bettors, but he’s got to conquer his addiction and, judging from the promos for the next episode, climb out of a steep dive. Talk about long odds.

Atmosphere vs clarity?

A little bit of jargon goes a long way. I’m all for building atmosphere with jargon, but clarity is important, too. Achieving atmosphere while confusing viewers/readers is risky, like betting the mortgage money to Win.

Through film editing, newbies to racing might pick up the gist of the conversation. Maybe. When and if you watch “Luck,” you’ll need to know that a “bug” is an apprentice jockey. A “peach” is a good horse. Or maybe it’s not? Everyone talks so fast, I had trouble keeping up.

Also, if you know nothing about horses, you’re liable to miss the whole point of the constipated horse subplot. In all the fast-paced, snappy dialogue, no one points out the dangers – states the stakes – of a colicky, constipated racehorse. Frankly, the entire subplot just comes off as an excuse for potty humor.

Yet, we horse lovers know this horse’s life is at risk, either from the condition itself worsening or from a character who’s tired of vet bills and looking for an insurance payout to take up the slack.

After all, in the cynical world of “Luck,” no holds are barred.

Can horse-lovers handle it?

If you had a problem watching “War Horse,” you’ll go into shock watching the first episode of “Luck.” In “War Horse,” Spielberg left the gore to our imaginations. “Luck” doesn’t.

Three quarters of the way through the episode, in the second race sequence, is a breakdown scene that will remind you of Ruffian, Barbaro, Eight Belles and thousands of nameless horses who’ve taken a final bad step on the track.

The “Luck” difference? Afterward, we go Behind the Privacy Screen. We watch “the light go out” of the horse’s eyes.

Granted, it could have been much, much worse. The spill could have taken out more horses. Jockeys could have been thrown and trampled. There’s a reason why an ambulance follows the field on the track – and an equine ambulance waits by the gate.

Many tender-hearted horse lovers who find the calculated risks of racing unacceptable won’t care that “the breakdown” could have been much, much worse.

If you’re not a race fan already – or if you just watch the Kentucky Derby for the hats and the flowers – you won’t be eager to take a trip to the track after watching “Luck.”

Will I watch it again?

God help me – yes. When I understand the dialogue, it’s smart and crackling. I may cringe at what’s being said, yet I can’t help but  admire the craft.

The jockey’s agent played by Richard Kind is creepy to watch but delivers some clever puns and lines I’ve caught myself using in real life.

And I want to see, despite the views of the dark side of racing, the spiritual side of seeing a” peach” zoom past the clocker’s stand. That the thunder of hooves passing your spot is like a heartbeat drumming through your toes. That this is why people love the sport they insist on calling “The Game.”

Even though the guys chasing the Pick Six are the ones paying the bills.

What do you think?

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  • Katy Lee
    January 27, 2012

    I wish I had HBO just to give it a try.

    • Rhonda Lane
      January 27, 2012

      Aw – yeah, me too, Katy. I appreciate that you’re willing to watch it, after all I told you about it.

  • Casey Wyatt
    January 27, 2012

    Hubby and I watched the first episode (back when they previewed it after Boarwalk Empire) and we just couldn’t get into this show. I wanted to like it, but it just didn’t keep my attention. But that doesn’t mean, I won’t give it another shot. Sometimes shows need time to get going!

  • Rhonda Lane
    January 28, 2012

    I know what you mean, Casey. Even I felt lost during the episode, and I know some of the jargon they used. Hindsight only gave me a better appreciation. My husband didn’t care for it at all. He didn’t know any of the jargon, and he didn’t like any of the characters enough to root for them.