Still smarting over the untimely demise of ‘Deadwood’, David Milch hits back, with ‘Luck’.
“After I do three years you suspect me? I take a fall protecting how many people… You got qualms? Three years!”
Like gamblers slouched against a rail tearing up losing slips, some TV viewers have been waiting for ‘Luck’ a long time. For many, the vigil stretches back to 2006, when ‘Deadwood’ was summarily cancelled. The lesser number of souls who found magic in the one season of ‘John From Cincinnati’ have been marking time since 2007. If you were a special kind of addict, you may even have experienced the rise and fall of hopes that accompanied reports of ‘Last of the Ninth’, a prospective series that was commissioned by HBO, but never got beyond the pilot stage. The substance to which this cohort of addicts is in thrall is the writing of David Milch.
As fond as people are of stating that we are living in a golden age of television drama, for some of us, there is no substitute for Milch’s work. ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ are, at best, akin to scratch cards, offering an excitement that evaporates instantly on disposal. Drawing deeply on experiences that have encompassed drug addiction, a successful career in academia and the nerve-shredding vagaries of the world of horse-racing (as both gambler and owner of Breeder’s Cup-winning horses), Milch tells rich stories of communities formed upon the interactions of fallible individuals. These worlds come to life in the words of the characters, in language that astounds both for its reticence and its profane opulence. These gifts are on display once more in Luck, a show that does not so much focus on as drift between a number of different characters, who remain separate while orbiting around the world of the Santa Anita racetrack.
It often seems as though Milch splits apart his own life to provide the experiences of his characters. Aspects of his own biography were apparent in a number of different characters in Deadwood. Similarly, Luck’s rogues’ gallery includes four men of roughly the same age as Milch, whose experiences testify to the fact that life corrodes as much as it lifts us up. The most prominent of these Milchian figures is Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), “the architect,” as one colleague dubs him, who, in the very first scene, we see released from a three year spell at Victorville penitentiary in California. This character corresponds to the Milch returning from a five-year spell of exile in the TV wilderness, into which he had been cast following the premature ending of his last two series. This time away has perhaps taken a toll on Milch, elements of which he has written into the attributes of Hoffman’s character. Ace Bernstein may be intent on revenge, but it appears that he will have to struggle as much with his own frailties as with the machinations of his foes. Ace quickly admits to memory problems and by the end of the pilot episode, we see that his bedside locker has a veritable model town of prescription medicines, a token of the aging process.
Then there is the “old man,” a trainer/owner played by Nick Nolte, who seems to soliloquise his own regret and remorse, before we realise that he is, in fact, directly addressing a horse. Nolte cuts a derelict figure, always in repose, until we realise that all his effort is quietly spent in trying to suppress his own hope, his delight, in the promise this horse shows when he finally allows the training girl (Kerry Condon) to test the animal’s true pace.
The paternal, pedagogic aspect of Milch can be seen in the unlikely figure of Marcus, the senior voice among the “degenerates,” a quartet of dishevelled gamblers, steeped in the track. Marcus offers gruff, reproving support to an even more hopeless younger comrade. Milch has been open about his own varied addictions, and, with his wheelchair and oxygen tank, Marcus is a Lucian Freud portrait of the toll such addictions can take.
Finally, there is Gus, the journeyman “driver,” Ace’s right-hand man and the clean-name needed as a “front” in taking ownership of a promising race horse. In a world energised by people’s capacity to betray each other for a quick score, Gus’s loyalty to Ace is touchingly evident, as transparent as Milch’s own wholehearted commitment to the storytelling possibilities of television. Milch’s faith manifests perversely as a willingness to seemingly give offense to the viewer, withholding easy explanation and likeability (or, that even more dreadful term, ‘relatability’) in the knowledge that the viewer will find a way into the story. Ultimately, the stories he tells enlist the energies of the viewer, making for a deeper, more satisfying engagement.
At the end of the pilot episode, as Ace reflects on his busy first day out of prison, we hear initially his rage directed towards those who have wronged him. And yet some pure faith, unaffected by betrayal and incarceration, glows in the man as he leaks his joy about the new horse he owns. “He’s all heart, he gets by you, forget about getting by him.” Milch may have similarly mixed feelings. There is undoubtedly, on the record, his own sense of bitterness about the betrayal of the executives who cancelled ‘Deadwood’ mid-flow. On the other hand, there is his indomitable faith in storytelling itself, a willingness to become mellow and giddy about the undimmed possibilities of telling a good yarn. In ‘Luck’, both Ace Bernstein and David Milch may have set out to make a calculated score, but they are also aware that just past the racket and the money lies the possibility of transcendence and the sublime.
– by Tony McKiver