Now we see why Sky Atlantic had Dustin Hoffman standing on a rooftop telling us about his penchant for ‘stories’ last February, it was because he has one of his own to tell. After making movies for over four decades, the Academy Award winner obviously wasn’t going to take the television plunge for any old series and in David Milch, he’s found a writer with the ability to create tangible drama with a real edge.
In the first scene of tonight’s pilot we see Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, a racehorse-owning crime boss, emerge from jail and return to the sun-drenched Santa Anita horse-track. This is quite a buttoned-down opening performance from Hoffman (apart from one scene in which he rips off his shirt) and as with the rest of the characters we are introduced to – from the cocksure jockeys to the scuzzy gamblers (or ‘railbirds’) – nearly everything remains beneath the surface.
The first yarn, which revolves around Ace’s return and a group of blokes winning big on a ‘Pick Six’ accumulator bet sets the scene nicely while giving us a tour from stables to grandstand, but Luck is a drama that makes demands of its audience. Milch grew up with horse-racing in his blood and he chooses not to spoon-feed the industry’s culture to viewers, indeed some might not even understand what a ‘Pick Six’ is. As such, Ace’s driver Gus (Dennis Farina) – through whom Ace is forced to own horses due to the conditions of his parole – could become a crucial character. A racing novice, his questions may serve the audience well as the series progresses, but he is used sparingly in this opening episode.
No-one gets too much screen-time but as with many other high-end HBO dramas, we are left in no doubt that while it may not have the swagger of Boardwalk Empire or AMC’s Mad Men, this remains a man’s world. Indeed one fleeting jockey aside, it’s nearly three-quarters of an hour until we meet a woman. Of course on their own these are mere details, yet when you throw in some strong accents, this might become an acquired taste for British audiences. It should be popular on Sky Atlantic though, which by definition attracts viewers with a love of potent drama.
With Michael Mann (Heat, Last of the Mohicans) on production duties, it certainly should be that, and fans may recognise the atmospheric and evocative sound-tracking from his previous work which augments the drama beautifully. The footage of horses in full flight is also truly a joy to behold.