Review: As 'Luck' has it, we like the handicap

From acclaimed director Michael Mann and "Deadwood" creator

From acclaimed director Michael Mann and "Deadwood" creator David Milch, HBO's nine-episode season of "Luck" debuts Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012. (Credit: HBO/)

DRAMA PREMIERE "Luck"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

REASON TO WATCH Michael Mann directed; David Milch wrote; and Dustin Hoffman stars.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Just released from three years in federal prison, Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Hoffman) returns home -- to Santa Anita Park, the storied racetrack in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. Terms of parole keep him away form gambling, so his driver and bodyguard, Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), fronts as his buyer of a spectacular Irish-bred racehorse.

Meanwhile, wheelchair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn), and his track pals Renzo (Ritchie Coster), Jerry (Jason Gedrick) and Lonnie (Ian Hart) circle around a "Pick-Six" score (betting on the winner of six races).

The jockeys at the park -- like Ronnie Jenkins (played by real-life jockey Gary Stevens) -- are either pawns or athletes, or both, while agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) keeps them in line. And . . . old-timer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) -- onetime trainer and now owner -- has his own dreams pinned on a horse.

MY SAY "Luck" is one of those HBO series that take time -- time to absorb, understand and maybe, ultimately, to love. Will you? There are three excellent reasons -- Milch, Mann and Hoffman -- why your faith will be rewarded. Nevertheless, "Luck's" advantages can also be its disadvantages. Milch has an amazing ear for how people really talk -- the subtext, elisions and implied understandings that go with any conversation -- and his words have an almost hypnotic rhythm and syncopation. But the patter can be difficult to absorb.

The characters are exotic too, lifted from a Bruegel canvas, with the hounds of hell on their heels. They're all a bunch of track rats, hustlers, lowlifes and mooks eager to make a score or settle one. A morbidity hangs over all of them: There's no joy in their actions, only a primal urge. Milch has projected some of his own hard gambling past onto each of them. He once said in a profile that "there's no satisfaction" in winning. "No joy in the compulsive act. It's a sterile recapitulation."

BOTTOM LINE Owner of a pair of thoroughbreds himself, Milch recently told the Los Angeles Times, "To me, the track is what the river was to Mark Twain." Sounds compelling, and "Luck" is too.

GRADE A

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