Television these days is supposed to be about youth.
Executives are obsessed by what twentysomethings want to watch; audiences tune in only to watch the young and the lithe. Which is just one reason why Luck, HBO's much anticipated horseracing drama, which comes to Sky Atlantic in February, stands out. With the notable exceptions of the rising British star Tom Payne (29) and Irish actress Kerry Condon (28) who play a pair of would-be jockeys, this is a story about old men.
Written by Deadwood's David Milch and produced by Michael Mann (who also directed the pilot), Luck is a slow-burning examination of loss and regret. As such, it's a world away from HBO's current hits, the sleek Boardwalk Empire or the bold and brutal Game of Thrones.
It stars Dustin Hoffman (74) as a weary gangster, his first lead role in a television series (he won an Emmy in 1986 for his performance as Willy Loman in a television adaptation of Death of a Salesman), Nick Nolte (70) as a trainer for whom the word grizzled appears to have been created and eye-catching supporting roles for Michael Gambon (71) and Dennis Farina (67).
While Luck flies in the face of modern television wisdom – in addition to having what must be the oldest cast on television, it also has barely any female roles – Milch's decision to gamble on experience pays off in interesting, and often unexpected, ways.
Take Hoffman's character, Chester "Ace" Bernstein, newly released from jail and angry at his perceived betrayal. On paper, Bernstein's tale should be a standard quest for vengeance but, as the first episode plays out, it becomes apparent that there is something far more compelling at stake.
This is a portrait of the gangster as an old man, weakened both by his time in prison and by his creeping suspicion that his faculties are fading. Both character and audience are left unsure of the extent to which dementia might be encroaching but Hoffman's restrained performance and, more importantly, the ever-present fear lurking just behind his calculating eyes, make this a candid look at aging rarely seen on our screens. Similarly, the plight of Nolte's trainer, scrabbling around the margins of the racing industry, hoping against hope for that one special horse, is made more powerful by the fact that a lifetime of small disappointments are etched on his weather-beaten face.
The fact that Luck is about more than simply horses and gambling (although it is excellent about both those things) should come as no surprise. Milch, 66, has always taken risks with his material whether reinventing the Western with Deadwood or upending the police procedural in NYPD Blue. Here, he seems to be as interested in meditating on the passage of time as he is on examining the close-knit racing world. This might be a drama about the thrill of the race but it is also a subtle look at the slow ravages of age.
It isn't always an easy ride. We enter conversations midway through and are introduced only briefly to characters before the camera spins off to hang out with someone new. The cast is large and the plot, essentially revolving around three different racehorses and the people connected to them, is not always easy to follow.
For all its complexity and despite an occasional tendency to meander towards the finishing line, those with the patience to stick with Luck will be amply rewarded. This is a clever, absorbing piece of television, and, thanks in part to its experienced cast, is quite unlike anything else on screen at the moment.
'Luck' comes to Sky Atlantic in February
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