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‘Luck,’ premiering Sunday on HBO

By David Hiltbrand, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

“Luck,” HBO’s new series about a racetrack in Southern California, has such impressive bloodlines, it’s almost intimidating.

Among its executive producers are filmmaker Michael Mann (“Heat”) and TV visionary David Milch (“Deadwood”). It has a distinguished cast, headed by Dustin Hoffman.

The writers, besides Milch, include such racing insiders as Jay Hovdey and Bill Barich.

Yet with all that going for it, “Luck” is a tough show to get attached to, particularly as it breaks from the gate Sunday.

The primary story belongs to Hoffman as Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a connected guy who just served a three-year jolt in prison covering for someone else’s crime. The experience seems to have unhinged him — or is that a smokescreen for some grander scheme he’s hatching?

“Luck” presents a hierarchical look at the track (it’s Santa Anita, although the characters never refer to it as such), from the owners to the trainers to the jockeys to the grooms to the railbirds.

But on all levels, their concerns and interactions are arcane. The show is simply too stable-bound, the dialogue often stilted.

There are some great performances here, including John Ortiz as a Peruvian-born trainer who has clawed his way to the middle of his profession and Jason Gedrick as a gambler so sick he loses even when he wins.

But from Hoffman to his chauffeur and legman Dennis Farina and on down the line, a lot of this cast is simply too long in the tooth to be convincing.

There are also problems with scale. Tom Payne seems awfully tall to be an apprentice jockey. And when Nick Nolte as a broken-down old trainer has his tearful soliloquy, you could swear his head is bigger than that of the horse he’s haranguing.

The racing sequences are quite exciting (even if again and again you can see the horses’ heads turned sideways from being reined in to stay in scripted formation).

For most viewers, “Luck” will prove to be an acquired taste. Several weeks in, after it turns down the intrusive musical score and scales back the overwrought dramatic moments, the series develops a texture and rhythm that are far more enjoyable than the first few episodes.

But we TV viewers have never been renowned for our patience. Consequently, “Luck” is a real long shot.

If you want a brilliant re-creation of life at a racetrack, read Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award-winning novel, “Lord of Misrule.”



9 p.m. EST Sunday


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