New series: It's complicated

Nick Nolte portrays a trainer-turned-owner.
Nick Nolte portrays a trainer-turned-owner. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: January 27, 2012

THE HORSES aren't the only things going round and round in HBO's racetrack drama "Luck," which officially hits the starting gate at 9 p.m. Sunday with the pilot the channel first previewed last month.

Written by David Milch ("Deadwood," "NYPD Blue") and directed by Michael Mann ("Heat"), it's an episode that sets a lot of separate planets spinning, leaving viewers to guess how long it'll take for their orbits to cross.

Don't be surprised if it's awhile and if the finish line looks farther away the farther you go. Half the fun of watching a Milch show is the journey from confusion to recognition, as your ear becomes attuned to the dialogue and to an ever-expanding universe of characters.

One center of "Luck's" universe is Dustin Hoffman's "Ace" Bernstein, an entrepreneurial type who's just finished three years in prison for a crime not immediately specified and who's interested in seeing a man about a horse.

Except he'll need to do that, at least for the moment, by proxy, having arranged while in prison for his longtime driver, Gus Demetriou (Dennis Farina), to win the couple of million dollars needed to purchase the Irish thoroughbred.

Hoffman, whom Mann said he talked into the role partly by pointing out that in contrast to so many others he's played, the character was more active than reactive, could easily carry a whole show with Ace's story alone, and his portrayal of an aging player who's all too aware that he's lost a few steps is riveting.

But then there's also Nick Nolte, whose Walter Smith, a trainer-turned-owner, has moved 2,000 miles with a horse he clearly loves to set up shop in Southern California (the series is filmed at Santa Anita Park), as well as John Ortiz as the always-on-the-make trainer Turo Escalante, who's training Ace's horse, Jill Hennessy as the track veterinarian and Richard Kind as a jockeys' agent.

Not to mention the quartet of gamblers who represent the forever hopeful regulars whose losses fund so much of the action to which they're often merely too-interested spectators.

Played by Kevin Dunn, Jason Gedrick, Ritchie Coster and Ian Hart, they could be the characters closest to the heart of Milch, whose research for this series has encompassed decades (and just might've cost more than the series itself).

Yet while it's their fortunes and misfortunes that in some ways keep "Luck" turning, theirs is also the world non-gamblers may have to work hardest to track, since it's less about the big-eyed horses than it is about the math.

"Will someone please tell me what's happening?" demands Hart's character, Lonnie, in Sunday's episode as they watch a race on a grainy TV screen that's presumably taking place on the track, in living color, just outside.

Now that's a world I might never truly understand.

I tend to judge dramas, especially, by their ability to make me care about people, places and things outside my comfort zone, whether it's mobsters in New Jersey, drug dealers in West Baltimore or meth producers in New Mexico.

I've seen all nine episodes of "Luck's" first season and I still don't know how to place a bet, much less pick a winner.

But when the carousel finally stopped turning, I couldn't wait to buy another ticket.

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