Luck, Sky Atlantic, Saturday Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Channel 4, Tuesday

Even Dustin Hoffman fails to prevent this often unintelligible horse-racing story from being dull

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The Independent Culture

You may not be surprised, dear reader, to learn that this TV reviewing lark is not overburdened with entry requirements, a desire to thwack anti-TV cultural snobs notwithstanding.

Still, no programme has made me feel quite so inexpert as this week's Luck, focusing as it does on two of my least specialist subjects: horse racing and men muttering about stuff. My interest in the former died with my reprehensible failure to bet on 2003 Grand National-winning namesake Monty's Pass, while my distaste for the latter means I've already sworn off Bob Dylan and Saturday afternoons in pubs for all eternity.

So was Luck about to help me in my ignorance? Hell no. This series set around a Los Angeles racetrack is, after all, the latest offering from the HBO stable of microcosmic Great American Dramas, known for being Bloody Hard Work. And though pre-publicity has focused on Dustin Hoffman's return to the small screen as newly paroled crime boss Ace Bernstein, he is, as HBO custom would have it, but one character actor in a teeming network of lost and compromised souls. These, in descending moral order, include a verminous jockey's agent; a shifty trainer; an IRS-defrauding gambling syndicate; a good Christian jockey; and Nick Nolte's horse owner, whose shamanic aura suggests he may yet become a horse whisperer to boot.

Throw in the fact that Luck is the brainchild of revered Deadwood creator David Milch, and that thriller auteur Michael Mann directed this week's pilot, and you will appreciate the series' serious pedigree. Yet perhaps this preponderance of heavyweight talent is part of the problem. Certainly, the opener seemed hobbled by an unchecked self-regard that rendered it both overemphatic and unintelligible.

On one hand, the production strained for significance, lingering close-ups, liberal slo-mo, incessantly portentous soundtrack and all. And on the other, the script negated said straining with a continuous stream of impenetrable racing jargon. Oh, and did I mention the muttering? There's a fine line between applaudable authenticity and audience alienation, and I knew Luck had crossed it 20 minutes in as I cheered an almost entirely comprehensible exchange involving ordering breakfast; never have the words "eggs over easy" seemed such sweet music.

But maybe I'm missing the point and maybe this is best enjoyed as a – excuse the wankiness – tone poem. Turn down the volume, and you could still appreciate the best bits: the gorgeous horses gleaming in ochre California sunlight, the immersively choppy race sequences and Hoffman's craggy visage. Indeed, Hoffman is by far the best thing about it: playing a once-alpha male struggling with the degradations of old age, his hollow eyes suggest a whole load of unravelling to come. Maybe it's also beside the point to review the first episode of a drama so clearly playing the long game: all I can say is that I dutifully watched next week's episode and found myself mostly reflecting on the long-awaited reappearance of Dawson's mum from Dawson's Creek. Looking for this winter's Truly Great American Drama? Then Homeland starts tonight, and I can exclusively reveal it is at least six times more compelling than this trumped-up thoroughbred.

Storming back into the headlines, meanwhile, was Channel 4's Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, whose return allowed for some fulsome sneering – not at the participants, but rather the rankly disingenuous programme-makers, back on the press rounds to defend their baby against charges of exploitation. After all, how unjust do you have to be not to appreciate the goodwill of a show adorned with the tagline "Bigger, Fatter, Gypsier"?

Thank heavens, also, that this series opener raised the key question "How crazy are those big dresses?", it having remained unaddressed through eight previous episodes. You only had to gauge the Twitter reaction to see how the makers' professed goal to challenge prejudices was working out. "Omfg they're bright orange & look tacky as fook!! Pmsl," said one.