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HBO horse-racing drama ‘Luck’ gets stuck in the mud

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The Details

Luck
Two and a half stars
Sundays, 9 p.m., HBO

The names behind HBO’s highly anticipated new drama series Luck are impressive even by the network’s general high standards. It’s created by Deadwood’s David Milch, with the pilot directed by filmmaker Michael Mann, who also supervised the production of the entire season. The cast is full of heavyweight dramatic actors, including Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. Milch sets the show in the high-stakes environment of competitive horse-racing; Mann oversees an impressive visual approach; and the talented actors fully commit to their performances. So why is Luck so lifeless and uninvolving?

Part of it has to do with the setting, which is insular and intimidating, and Milch makes little effort to open it up to the uninitiated. Over the course of the first season’s nine episodes, certain aspects of the horse-racing world do become clearer, but the jargon is still largely impenetrable, and anyone without an inherent interest in gambling or horses is going to have a hard time getting invested in much of what occurs. Beyond the lingo of that closed-off world, Milch and the other writers also favor elliptical, sometimes inscrutable dialogue, so that characters are often uttering poetic riddles instead of communicating directly. It also doesn’t help that a number of characters have thick accents (plus whatever the deal is with Nolte’s voice these days).

Despite his prominence in the marketing, Hoffman is just one part of a large ensemble cast, and his rich ex-con Chester “Ace” Bernstein joins a range of jockeys, trainers, owners and gamblers who spend their time at the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California. Ace has the most HBO-like storyline, with a slow-burning revenge plot against the people who sent him to prison, but even that progresses incrementally and with little excitement.

For an HBO drama, Luck is remarkably light on violence and nudity, and there’s little else to grab the viewer’s attention; even the horse races become monotonous after a while. Mann and the other directors have a tendency to insert dark, ominous music when nothing ominous is happening, and the show overall has the same tendency to project seriousness and importance without actually presenting either.

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