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Maureen Ryan Headshot

Why You Should Stick With Luck

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I've had a lot of discussions with various people -- readers, friends, Twitter followers, my spouse -- about "Luck" in recent weeks. People who've struck up conversations about "Luck" don't know whether to stick with it, and I keep asking them to do so -- for just one more episode, at least.

I've developed a short pitch for the show that I feel bears repeating here: If you've liked David Milch's work in the past, give the first four episodes of the show a try. If, after Episode 4, you don't want to watch more, fair enough. But anyone who sticks with the show that long will likely stay with it until the end, and the end is really worth the ride.

Episode 4 airs Sunday (Feb. 19, 9 p.m. EST on HBO), and if you've watched any of "Luck" up till this point, you owe it to yourself to see if that episode changes your point of view. I think there's a good chance waverers might stay with the show after that fourth hour, which features a terrific racing sequence that embodies everything I enjoy about Milch's deeply felt immersion in the world of horse racing.

I also want to amend my review of the show a little bit, in a positive way. Weeks before "Luck" debuted, HBO sent all nine episodes of Season 1 to critics, and when I wrote my positive review of the drama, I'd only seen the first seven hours. I got a chance to watch the last two hours recently, and I'm happy to report that the season finale of "Luck" is one of the most satisfying and beautifully shot hours of television I've seen in months.

Having said all that, everyone has their own Milch tolerance level. I could not get into "John From Cincinnati," despite repeated attempts. Perhaps the difference here is that, as I said in my review, the track feels like a more accessible place. And even though I don't identify with the gamblers' longshot mentality (when my grandmother took me to the track, I would hang on to the $2 she gave me, rather than bet it on some nag I'd never even met), but the main draw of "Luck" is that it helps me understand what the denizens of Santa Anita see in that world. I feel their thrill when a race takes on an epic momentousness; I smile when they get a lucky break.

In any event, I expected to have to hang out in "Luck's" racetrack world for a while before I really understood what was going on; as a huge fan of "Deadwood," I know that the power of David Milch's work is cumulative. The last couple of episodes of "Deadwood's" first season are among the high points in HBO's Three Davids trilogy of greatness. In those hours, you didn't just know about the complex relationships and inexpressible emotions that coursed through that camp, you felt them in your bones. 

As they trundle along, Milch's shows acquire layers of details that don't just end up creating singular atmospheres and worlds, they also lead to peaks and valleys of tragedy and exaltation. One of those moments comes in Sunday's episode, during that key race. It nearly brought me to tears for reasons I couldn't quite understand, and I think that's the point. Milch is trying to evoke primal emotions that most of us aren't really able to articulate. Hence the use of Sigur Ros here and there on the soundtrack; like a good Sigur Ros song, great Milchian moments indicate tectonic shifts going on inside a soul. 

As for plot, I wouldn't say that "Luck" doesn't have one; clearly Dustin Hoffman's Ace Bernstein character is up to something, though I would not want to have to give a detailed accounting of what that something is. As is the case with the Four Horsemen (the railbirds who hang around Santa Anita racetrack and own a promising horse of their own*), I understand the general shape of what Ace is trying to do -- he's trying to get back at those who wronged him. The stakes for the railbirds are lower, but more interesting, strangely. They're trying to hang on to the jackpot they won in the pilot and keep their own racehorse happy and healthy, but Jerry's self-destructive streak and their hard-knock lives make their small-time aspirations anything but a sure bet.

(*In its press releases about "Luck" episodes, HBO refers to the foursome as the Degenerates, which I kind of love.)

So, see how you like Episode 4, and if you stick with "Luck," there are some wonderful moments and stories that surface throughout the rest of the season. One example: I was as frustrated as anyone else by Turo Escalante's (John Ortiz) thick accent in the first few episodes, but by the "Luck" season finale, I was shocked at how much I cared about the guy. 

That episode also features a fantastic race, one of the finest of the season; director Mimi Leder brings such poetry and immediacy to the season's climactic race that I'd happily watch it again and again. It's an epic moment that unites several of the first season's story lines, but it also feels intimate; we've become privy to these people's hopes and dreams. We feel the weight of their expectations and the itch of their fears. It's super-Milchian, and it's terrific.

If you do happen to catch Sunday's episode, or have thoughts on the show so far, please share your observations in the comments.