‘Luck’ Got Dealt a Bad Hand

The history of high art abounds with towering work left incomplete. Throughout the ages, death is obviously the most common cause of unfinished masterpieces, from Virgil’s “Aeneid” to Bach’s “Art of Fugue,” from Gaudi’s “Cathedral of the Holy Family” to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon.” Failed or withheld financial support comes next. Last is the creator’s often enigmatic unwillingness or inability to conclude the job.

In popular, no less than high culture, plenty of outstanding work has been left incomplete. Sometimes it stands on its own; often it teases but does not satisfy. Jimi Hendrix was creating a double album, “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” when he died from an overdose; one can hear flashes of his amazing grace in reconstructions, but flashes only.

To the despair of fans, many terrific, or at least promising, TV series have been canceled after a season, or further down the line – most notably “Star Trek” and “Arrested Development,” but also and more recently “The 4400” and “Firefly.” The continuing popularity of such shows in syndication and DVD release attests to the deep shortsightedness of executives or sponsors who clamored for their termination.

HBO’s “Luck” is the latest series to be axed after a single season. In this case, feckless network executives can’t be blamed so conveniently. As far as I have been able to determine, worry about profitability was not the sole cause. Whatever the reasons, the decision to abandon “Luck” was particularly unfortunate. The pilot was not always easy to follow, but the series quickly gathered dramatic force with each new episode. By its conclusion, “Luck” was receiving the kind of praise from most critics lavished upon past shows like “The Sopranos” and the recent “Boardwalk Empire.”

“Luck” is the brainchild of David Milch, who has enjoyed a successful 30-year run on network and cable TV as writer and creator of, among other things, “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Deadwood.” I did not know until now that Milch also is a major horse racing enthusiast and, by his own confession, a heavy and, at times, compulsive gambler.

In interviews, Milch has said that his father starting taking him to the racetrack when he was 5. One intimates that over the years the track became as important as his writing. He’s tremendously knowledgeable about every aspect of this idiosyncratic milieu – its bright and shadowy side, and its people of the highest and meanest class. Its scams and hustles are ubiquitous across the social order. Milch savors them all.

He has a special admiration not only for trainers and riders, but for those of the backstretch, so to speak: those who do the daily down and dirty care of the horses for poor pay and poorer lodging. His respect is tempered by appreciation of their flaws. Above all, he treasures the breathtaking creatures themselves, their poignant combination of power, grace, and fragility. He also harbors no illusions about the crass exploitation of their inherent vulnerability.

Milch also is thoroughly acquainted with the vicissitudes of compulsive gambling, by his account gained at first hand – not merely the disorder’s signs and symptoms, but its peculiar action-addicted lifestyle, eternally perched between dizzy hope or desolating despair, wherever and whatever the action, on the rail, or at a poker table. (The most accurate depiction of compulsive gambling on film, sans sermonizing, is Robert Altman’s “California Split.”)

In creating “Luck,” Milch employs his formidable artistic and experiential skills in the fashion of the great director Robert Altman, himself no stranger to gambling. Aided by the superior direction of Michael Mann, Milch spreads a broad canvas of disparate personalities, each of whom epitomizes a different aspect of the track milieu. One comes to recognize that each also is a hologram of a mysterious wholeness, pulsing with subtle psychological resonances. Hollywood has repeatedly tried to bring off Altman’s artful layering of story and character since “Nashville.” Milch is one of the few to succeed.

His Santa Anita racetrack not only is an imaginary palace of dreams, where fantasies of supreme wealth and glory seem always to lie achingly within one’s grasp but are never realized. Milch depicts it as the actual fading palace it is. Here, as elsewhere across America, attendance is dwindling as thoroughbred racing is threatened not only by off-track betting, but the rise of the real and virtual casino industry.

The central figure in Milch’s elegant tapestry is Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), a gambling/gangster kingpin of the old school. He’s been released on parole from 3 years of incarceration on a drug rap rigged by his associates, who now fear vengeful retaliation. Hoffman plays him as a Jewish Godfather, impeccable even in his prison uniform. He’s a small man of few, carefully measured words, radiating enormous authority, with massive gravitas a Don Corleone would envy. He continues to preside over a powerful, semilegal empire, and has sanctioned criminal and even bloody deeds, but always has kept to his own rigorous code of honor, choosing not to inform on those who betrayed him.

Ace is joined by a companion from the bad old days, Gus Demetriou (Dennis Farina). Gus is far more than Ace’s bodyguard. He’s his dearest friend and confidant – although dear would not be a word in the Bernstein dictionary. From jail, Ace fronted the purchase of a horse through Gus (he can’t legally own one). The buy is crucial to his Machiavellian scheme to exact revenge on his partners, even as he appears to be courting them for a new project: acquiring, then resurrecting Santa Anita into a “racino,” or combination racetrack/casino.

A quartet of ragtag horseplayers has occupied the same table in the trackside cafe since Moses descended the mountain. Typical of such affiliations, these men are extravagantly unsocialized, not introspective, and chiefly relate to gamblers who share their marginal way of life. The group is presided over by Marcus (Kevin Dunn), a paraplegic misanthrope with a rancorous gibe for all comers and occasions.

Perennially short on cash but long on hope, the group reveres the so-called gambler’s fallacy – that Lady Luck only stays south for so long. Redemption rides on a “Pick 4” – choosing four successive winners. As “Luck” begins, Marcus’ scruffily handsome protege, Jerry (Jason Gedrick), dopes out a $2 million Pick 4 payout. It alters the quartet’s Motel 6 existence not one whit; indeed, it provides Jerry with the means to ruin himself even more disastrously at the poker tables (prodigies like this rarely excel at more than one game).

Jerry’s triumph pivoted around a long-shot nag owned and trained by Turo Escalante (John Ortiz). Turo, a former street urchin, clawed his way into the barns, and after years of grueling labor became successful at his craft. He could easily have become the kind of celebrity trainer who hobnobs with jurassically wealthy patrons. However, he prefers to avoid the limelight so he can stay true to his own disagreeable and contemptuous self. One wouldn’t ever want to be on the sharp end of his displeasure.

Turo practices every sharp trick in the trainer’s manual to disguise the talents of cheap or otherwise questionable horses, then bets just enough to earn a comfortable livelihood without having the animal claimed away. He’s thus none too happy when Jerry susses out his entry’s hidden form in the Pick 4 – too much notoriety. He’s even unhappier when Ace chooses him to take on his horse. Turo hates to be under anyone’s thumb, especially the thumb of an implacable Ace.

Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) embodies thoroughbred racing’s halcyon days. The star trainer of a bluegrass Kentucky stable owned by “The Colonel,” Walter was gifted a prized colt on a handshake by the boss before he died. The Colonel’s heirs subsequently ruined the stable, and murdered the colt’s sire for the insurance. Taking the colt with him, Walter fled Kentucky and finally settled at Santa Anita, his glory days supposedly behind him. But he’s quietly training the colt to become a champion, concealing its potential after Turo’s fashion, but for nobler purposes. Nolte plays Walter as an elder thoroughbred savant, speaking a sort of gravelly voiced equine Shakespeare.

The minor characters in “Luck” include apprentice and seasoned jockeys, perennially wrestling with weight and substance abuse; Turo’s exasperated lover, the astringent track vet; an Aspergerish jockey agent, suicidally depressed over his failed marriage; Ace’s Borgia-like betrayers; and Claire Lachey, a mysterious woman who runs a farm where ex-cons rehabilitate traumatized horses toward the recovery of human and animal alike.

The major and minor characters (many well-known actors in small parts) are palpably “there” for us, even when fleetingly, as in Altman’s and Fellini’s character-dense movies. A case in point is Claire, whose self-effacing, luminous presence begins to touch Bernstein’s stony heart, long armored against intimacy. She’s played by the estimable Joan Allen. Allen can’t be cast against type, because she’s never confined herself to any type.

Then, of course, there are the horses themselves. The racing sequences in “Luck” are simply the best ever lensed, compelling the viewer to viscerally identify with the terrible dangers of maneuvering through a thundering wall of competitors. Milch also captures the ineffable sweetness that emanates from these magnificent animals when they’re at rest.

All the chief characters, and most of the minor ones, are deeply affected by this potent sweetness, which in turns shapes our deeper and often kinder perception of them. Walter Smith seems to have it in his marrow – he could be part horse. Turo Escalante’s irascible exterior conceals a tenderness that one speculates stems from a childhood identification with his charges. Echoing Ace’s attraction to Claire, that same sweetness touches and unsettles the aging mobster. In an especially lovely sequence, Ace, to Gus’s consternation, decides to sit through the night in the barn with his ailing horse. As he drifts off, it gently rests its neck on his shoulder, nuzzles his cheek. It’s a scene of purest cinema gold.

The last episode of “Luck” artfully knots together the series’ narrative strands. Like all well-crafted cliff-hangers, it both stands on its own and establishes the premises for another season. This was not to be. The second season was supposedly already in the works when HBO abruptly canceled the series.

On a dark and stormy night in 1797, Samuel Coleridge awoke from a febrile opium dream and immediately began scribbling it out. He was suddenly called away on business by a person from the nearby town of Porlock. When he returned, his dream had completely vanished from his mind, leaving 200 lines of “Kubla Khan,” one of the greatest poems in English romantic literature. No one knows who Coleridge’s visitor was, or his business. But ever since, “the person from Porlock” has been a symbol of the devastating intrusion of grubby outsiders into the sacred domain of art.

It seems several persons from Porlock were involved in the disastrous termination of “Luck.” Three horses died in the course of the series, in at least one case from an injury sustained during a routine walk. Both the animal rights organization PETA and the gossip show TMZ nosed it about that HBO had been grossly negligent, charges that were persistently denied, even when the show was canceled.

Despite favorable reviews, the viewership of “Luck” failed to measure up to the network’s high expectations, escalating rumors that the equine deaths were used as a pretext to shut down the series. I believe Milch may very well have been too close to his material to realize that unknowledgeable viewers might be turned off by a pilot heavily laden with obscure racing procedures and lingo. HBO apparently had the same impression, because subsequent episodes contained skillful introductions by way of effective clarification.

Mozart’s “Requiem” and Puccini’s “Turandot,” left incomplete by their composers’ deaths, had reasonable endings fleshed out. But fine TV series like “Luck” are not likely to be rehabilitated, if only because of the economics involved. As any gambler would tell you, that’s the breaks of the game. You can play the hell out of a poker hand, be dead certain the pot is yours, only to have a little old lady with blue hair from Porlock draw out on you. So in that spirit, let’s just say we’re supremely lucky to have one season of “Luck,” when there might have been none.

The series is still running on HBO per view and will doubtless be available on DVD within a year or so.

Originally published on Clinical Psychiatry News

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