Whenever there's a new TV show from veteran writer David Milch, there is reason for some excitement, or at least curiosity. Mr. Milch was responsible for the development of the Andy Sipowicz character on "NYPD Blue" and he took HBO subscribers back in time to the dusty, profanity-filled streets of "Deadwood."
That's not to say this acclaimed writer can't have misfires. "John from Cincinnati," about an odd, possibly god-like character in the midst of a surfing community, was a bridge too far and it was quickly canceled. But Mr. Milch's latest program, HBO's "Luck" (9 tonight), is more conventional than "John." Mr. Milch still makes viewers work to understand all the nuances of the world he creates but it's rooted in a more concrete, identifiable setting.
As first impressions go, "Luck" doesn't seem like an earth-shatteringly great show, but for viewers who enjoy being submerged into a dirty, tawdry world of oddball characters, it should suffice.
Directed by Michael Mann ("Miami Vice"), tonight's "Luck" pilot introduces viewers to the behind-the-scenes world of horse racing and gambling, coming at it from multiple points of view.
Impeccably dressed, well-connected Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) exits federal prison after three years and gets a ride from his longtime bodyguard/chauffeur, Gus (Dennis Farina). Ace has hatched a scheme where Gus acts as though he's the owner of a $2 million horse that Ace purchased.
"All I worry about is when I'm working outside my own depth," ever-loyal Gus says.
"You don't know your own depth," Ace replies.
Peruvian trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) cares for the horse with assistance from a track veterinarian (Jill Hennessy). Turo frequently clashes with brash, young jockey Leon (British newcomer Tom Payne), who has eyes for aspiring Irish jockey Rosie (Kerry Condon).
If these characters represent the upscale and work-a-day spots on a horse racing spectrum, a quartet of degenerate gamblers cover the lower end of the spread. Led by disabled Marcus (Kevin Dunn, "Samantha Who?"), the foursome pool their money to bet on a horse. Renzo (Ritchie Coster) paces nervously, Lonnie (Ian Hart, "Dirt") needs what's happening explained to him as though he is blind, although he doesn't appear to be, and Jerry (Jason Gedrick) is the scruffy charmer of the bunch.
In addition, veteran trainer-owner Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) putters around, considering the possibilities of a promising horse, and a boozy veteran jockey (real-life racing Hall of Famer Gary Stevens) also pops up.
Tonight's premiere introduces the "Luck" world in a general way and next week's episode gets down to brass tacks, explaining more back story for the characters through some disappointingly heavy-handed exposition, particularly when it comes to Ace and his relationship with a former business partner.
"Luck" shows off all the Milchian hallmarks, including dark character humor; short, precise dialogue and a simpleton character, Gus, who, in episode two, is obsessed with making comments about a goat with oversized testicles.
There's no denying that "Luck" is a bit of a slog at times. Mr. Milch expects viewers to work to understand the intricacies of his world and, with the exception of the Ace back story, he's not inclined to spell things out. That will work for some viewers and others will throw up their hands and change the channel.
Thanks to Mr. Mann, "Luck" offers strong visual appeal, especially for horse lovers, with shots that highlight the beauty -- and sometimes the agony -- of the animals as they gallop around Santa Anita Raceway in Southern California, where much of the series is filmed.
Viewers who appreciate slow-moving stories set in gritty, somewhat sleazy environments with characters of questionable morals are most likely to be rewarded by betting on "Luck."
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.