Horsey Set

By Nussbaum, Emily | The New Yorker, January 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

Horsey Set


Nussbaum, Emily, The New Yorker


Here are a few things I know little about: gambling, horses, the manly bonds of career drinkers, the lonely hotel rooms of businessmen, and the sly mathematical ecstasy of statistics. In other words, I'm almost certainly not the critic to determine the authenticity of "Luck," the new HBO series by David Milch, who is himself a horse owner and has wagered at the track for nearly half a century.

Still, I can say that the show has a musky, appealing sensuality to it, a stink of leather and aged Scotch. Starting with the pilot, filmed at the Santa Anita racetrack and directed by Michael Mann, the show's camera noses into everything, lapping up the dirty allure of the stables, the twitchy degenerates filling the bleachers, the champions gloating for the cameras, and particularly the races themselves, sequences in which the camera gets so close that it might as well be a horse itself. When it comes to story, unfortunately, "Luck" is a drag. Like David Simon's "Treme," "Luck" has lofty, loving aims: it yearns to celebrate an exotic subculture, one whose argot can feel as impenetrable as Klingon. At Milch's Santa Anita, rich men wager on poorer, younger bodies (those of both the horses and the jockeys)--a theme so fascinating that I kept placing my own bets that it would pay off. But, starting with the pilot, the drama makes a bad gamble: it takes for granted that we'll care about the fates of its shutoff, curmudgeonly power brokers, yet never gives us much reason to do so. Like so many love letters, it's hard to decipher if you haven't already made the leap.

I take no pleasure as I type these words. To the contrary, I feel the ghastly critical chill of admitting that I was bored by such obvious prestige television, created by people whose work I admire. Milch was behind "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood"; as a risk-taker in a world of easy bets, he's venerated for good reason. The series gleams with HBO handsomeness. It stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte (and Dennis Farina and Joan Allen: the cast is so impressive that I giggled when Alan Rosenberg showed up). And yet I couldn't help feeling that I was missing something.

Much of the problem is the macho ensemble, which barks insults like comics at a roast. There's the muttering codger Walter Smith (Nolte), the irascible trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), and the stuttering rageaholic jockey-agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind). Then there's Dustin Hoffman's Chester (Ace) Bernstein, an ex-con financier who spends the bulk of his time seething in lavish hotel suites, rattling ice in a glass. Like Emily Thorne on "Revenge," Bernstein is working a long scam against the men who wrecked his life, a scheme that we learn about through Socratic dialogues with his chauffeur-consigliere, Gus Demitriou (Farina). Visually, the show frames Bernstein as a weighty cable antihero: the Tony, the Walter, the Don. But he never evolves into more than a constipated rich guy who communicates in pained glances, curt demands, and other signifiers of manliness. In one negotiation, Bernstein name-checks Miles Davis in order to telegraph his worth to another man. In another, Bernstein's decadent antagonist (British accent, check; flowery Biblical references, check) offers him anal sex with his stable of slave girls. When Bernstein declines, the scene seems intended to suggest that he's a restrained romantic--a low standard, even for an antihero. (Let's simply skirt the subject of the other female characters, who are angelic and/or dull, except for the cable-nudity contribution of two pissed-off cougars.)

Milch is famous for his aggressively stylized, arcane dialogue, and the scripts overflow with faintly "Guys and Dolls"-ish exchanges, which lean heavily on constructions like "How long my time in Siberia?" and "No icing error, this." That oddness can be effective. But, just as often, it feels affected or expositional--once you slash through the verbal kudzu, there's surprisingly little subtext. …

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