TV Review: HBO's LUCK Pilot

HBO's new drama Luck won't premiere until the end of January, but the network gave us a little preview last night. Here's what we think.

HBO continues its streak of stacking powerful performers in uncharacteristic roles with calculated showrunners and directors in its new drama Luck. The series won't officially premiere until the end of January, but the network screened the pilot after the finale of Boardwalk Empire, hoping to lure some viewers in early. Luck focuses on the world of horse racing and all of the deceit, corruption, blessing and just dumb old good fortune that comes with it. The show packed a real punch, but with a whirl of characters, following along can be a bit confusing for those new to the sport and the story. The series was conceived by veteran David Milch, the man behind NYPD Blue and Deadwood. Milch has become the stuff of legends for his ability to create tragic intersections between powerful personalities, a skill that he is certainly bringing to the table in his newest venture. Michael Mann was chosen to direct the pilot, following a more majestic style then we might expect from a low-light, digital technophile. Still, Mann's imprint comes across in the episodes most tense and suspenseful moments with an accelerated pace that manages to rival the intensity of the racing itself. The show begins with Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) emerging from prison stone-faced and ready for his next move. Hoffman plays Bernstein cold and dark, without even a hint of jest and speaking only when he has something to say. His performance harkens back to films like Confidence or even The Graduate, but it's really unlike anything we've ever seen from him. Bernstein's temper sits comfortably on the edge of chaos ready to tip over at any moment. His subdued and chatty driver Gus is played by Denis Farina (Snatch, Get Shorty) who at first appears to be nothing but a front or fall-guy for Bernstein's business, but quickly reveals that he has some ideas of his own. Next we have Escalante (John Ortiz), a horse trainer who deals in a little dirt himself. Even though his new horse is a long-shot, Escalante is well respected by those that know the sport. With quite a bit to lose, Ortiz oscillates between total respect for his horses and animosity for his jockey and agent, played by an exceptionally nervous Richard Kind. Though he doesn't get much screen time, I see a bit the beginnings of a star in Tom Payne, a sympathetic and talented jockey who rides for Escalante. A bit on the periphery we have a seasoned trainer who goes only by "The Old Man" (Nick Nolte). He whispers to a possible Derby contender but remains somewhat of an enigma. Is he a herald of the old guard or is he hiding something behind this facade? Bringing up the rear is a rag tag group of gamblers led by Marcus (Kevin Dunn) and Jerry, the latter of which confidently slams his "picks" for the day down on the table even while he is barely able to pay off his gambling debts. There's only one glimmer of light for this group, the hope that they picked the right horses and get the big jackpot. If this seems like a bit of a laundry list of stars and crew, that's because the episode took its time setting up all of the various characters, orchestrating their potential trajectories without giving away too much. HBO is always very patient with its new shows, giving its writers time to develop a mulch-dimensional story such as this one without demanding big thrills right away. I'm a bit wary of the potential for this show to truly have legs (pun intended?), but my gut is telling me to trust the format and have confidence in the brilliance that Milch has already shown us and the power of the stars attached. I only hope that once the series unfolds a bit, Milch can bring us down to earth a bit so that an understanding of the show's dense material becomes more implicit and identifiable. But if each episode can pack the level of suspense that Milch and Mann were able to provide, we have a real winner on our hands (okay, this time pun definitely intended). If you missed the preview, you can catch it again on January 29th when the show premieres on HBO. For now, here's a preview of what's to come. Season 1 Tease

Jay is a pop culture addict. When he's not consuming aforementioned addiction, he can be seen sleeping. For some more insights and film news and recommendations you can follow him on Twitter @CriticalJayD Or you can add him on Google+