Early in the new HBO series Luck, a gangster’s chauffeur-cum-bodyguard, Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), goes to L.A.’s Santa Anita racetrack with his boss, Chester “Ace” Bern-stein (Dustin Hoffman), and makes a bet on a long shot. When the horse comes in, Gus clutches his winning ticket and says happily: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you this isn’t a great fucking country.”
I wouldn’t dream of it. But I will point out that Gus doesn’t win his bet because he’s been shrewd or even lucky. He wins because he’s gotten an inside tip from a dodgy trainer, a fact that, in the exhilaration of victory, he either forgets or takes for granted.
Such is the slippery world of Luck, a program that aspires to capture not only the rich splendor of horse racing but this country in all its star-spangled dreams and delusions. This is no less than you’d expect of a show created by writer David Milch and co-produced by director Michael Mann, guys nobody would ever accuse of thinking small. While Mann has made a career in flamboyant pop mythology, from Miami Vice to The Last of the Mohicans to Public Enemies, Milch has spent years anatomizing the American soul (and underbelly), most famously in Deadwood where he took advantage of long-form TV to tell a story novelistic in its richness. At one in their obeisance to the samurai code of masculinity—which didn’t stop them from battling on the set—they’ve cooked up a show that uses the racetrack to explore the tug-of-war between the opposing sides of our national psyche: the neon allure of excitement and moola and the quiet yearning for Something More.
If Deadwood was a teeming mural of wide-open capitalism in the Wild West—dominated by the Shakespearean brilliance of Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen—Luck takes place in a dwindling, present-day California where the cocky poker whiz is Chinese (of course) and financial types condescend even to mobsters about derivatives. The plot pinballs among three tiers of characters who embody an askew version of our class structure: At the top are scheming thugs; at the bottom, grungy hard-core gamblers; in between (and, to my mind the most interesting group) are those who do the tricky, laborious work that makes horse racing go. Nearly all the characters are male, which feels more Mannish than Milchy, and it’s hard to imagine them voting, let alone voting for a Democrat.
Now, there’s something more than a little nostalgic in making a TV series about horse racing, especially using it to explore American life in an era when the reigning metaphor is not the track but the casino. The Sport of Kings has faded badly in recent decades, perhaps because most of us have ridden more wooden horses than living ones. Few ordinary people follow racing anymore, not even the Triple Crown, and its remaining fans grumble about the sport’s competitive decline: Races now typically resemble this year’s Republican presidential field—a bunch of nags chasing a prohibitive favorite that the crowd is rooting against. The money that once supported the sport is being swallowed by all those electronic slots that hypnotized William Bennett. Indeed, it’s central to Luck’s not altogether satisfying plot that Hoffman’s Ace plans to buy a racetrack and then turn it into a casino, a trick he thinks he can pull off because of California’s crumbling tax base. Politicians are dying for any new form of revenue.
Yet for all this, Milch and Mann believe that horse racing still shimmers with a certain magic. They find it thrilling, and so do their characters, who turn every close race into a symphony of reaction shots. As the horses round the final turn of a big derby, the old Kentucky trainer Walter Smith (perma-grizzled Nick Nolte) starts swaying and wobbling like a man caught in a voodoo trance. Although the race isn’t real, you may find your own heart beating faster too. Boasting some of the best racing footage I’ve seen, the show taps into the adrenaline rush of watching these amazing creatures charge down the homestretch, a feeling that’s almost primal.
Oddly enough, this kind of pleasure unleashes all manner of puritanism. Every four years, civic-minded killjoys trot out the complaint that our elections are treated as horse races. Well, yes, although this may be unfair to horse racing, where the winning horse isn’t nearly always the one with the richest backer. American culture has the bad habit of reducing every human accomplishment—fashion, singing, cooking, even losing weight—to some sort of measurable contest. Just as the media cares far more about whether Meryl Streep will win the Oscar than that The Iron Lady is addlepated right-wing propaganda, so CNN is clearly far happier showing John King’s “Magic Wall” of numbers than it is discussing whether Mitt Romney’s ideas about the economy differ from George W. Bush’s—you know, the ones we’re still digging out from under.
We like horse races precisely because they’re thrilling. I first fell in love with politics while watching the returns come in on long November nights when the numbers themselves seemed enchanted and the electoral college seemed neat, not idiotic. Much of the fun of an election is that it is a horse race, a marathon steeplechase, with front-runners and long shots, dark horses and steeds with fancy bloodlines. (Speaking of which, don’t you pity Jeb Bush, just a little, for his bad luck in having W. as a brother?) Sure, it would be swell if people preferred reading PDFs about climate change to watching Hardball or Hannity, but really, is there anything more enjoyable than watching Chris Matthews, who relishes electoral jockeying, go into one of his free-associative riffs on Mitt Romney campaigning like “a merchandiser” or Ron Paul revving up his radical base with “suggestions for changing the universe”?
MILCH AND MANN understand the allure of that most enduring of American fantasies, the dream of the Big Score, which has inspired everything from caper tales like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing to game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to the state-owned Lotto machines in California supermarkets whose digital readouts say, “Please gamble responsibly.” (I can almost hear the late William Safire fulminating about what he called “the chiseling champions of chance.”) Luck is all about characters searching for the score that will make everything right. Ace hopes to treat his underworld enemies to one majestic coup de grâce. Nolte’s Walter trains the great stallion he hopes will heal a raw psychic wound. As for the quartet of gamblers who are the show’s lumpen core, these self-described degenerates lay down a huge Pick Six bet using money one of them got for sleeping with two women—who are actually setting him up for a scam of their own.
The desire to hit the jackpot is not uniquely American, but this is the country whose official mythology makes us expect to hit it. That’s why generations of college athletes skip classes—they believe they are sure to join the handful of players who actually make the pros. That’s why my father, an otherwise sensible Iowan, bought Florida real estate that proved more attractive to mosquitoes than to developers. And that’s why the public hasn’t risen up against Republican tax policy. Although it’s nearly impossible for an average American to join the wealthiest 1 percent—these days even rising in class is unlikely—the idea that we could runs so deep that millions of struggling Americans go against their own interests. They don’t want to raise taxes on the ultra-rich, because they can picture themselves becoming ultra-rich and not wanting to pay the tax.
The quest for the big score is rarely a pretty thing, as Luck makes clear with its grisly gangland murders, jockeys collapsing while trying to sweat out weight, and agents groveling before trainers to get their clients a ride. From the opening episode, we’re faced with the cruelty that’s an inescapable part of the sport. A colt is racing toward victory when—snap!—its foreleg breaks and the poor animal tumbles to the turf. Such an injury is not surprising—racehorses are bred to have those brittle legs—nor is what happens next. The horse is killed on the spot. It’s a horrifying scene, yet what makes it even more terrible is what goes on in the stands. On the verge of winning their Pick Six, our four degenerate gamblers have bet on every single horse in the race, so when this one falls, they barely blink. They just start cheering another horse that’s still running. Nothing else matters.
Not to them, anyway. Even as Milch and Mann demonstrate how money taints almost everything, the world they create is far less bleak than those of its HBO stable-mates Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. In fact, far from trying to kneecap the American Dream, they take pains to show how, in the midst of what sometimes looks like darkness, there are heartening moments of human connection, be it Ace and Gus’s almost marital friendship, Walter’s fatherly concern for the jockey Rosie, or the camaraderie between the four gamblers, who may kvetch, argue, and display all the social awareness of tree slugs yet still have one another’s backs.
Beyond these moments of shared humanity, Luck tries, sometimes too hard, to offer poetic intimations of transcendence. These invariably emanate from the horses, which are seen as possessing a noble grandeur that soars not merely above the racetrack but beyond the world of the men who put them there. At one point, Ace visits a ranch where prison inmates can rehabilitate themselves by working with horses that have been put out to pasture and, no longer compelled to race to earn their keep, live among “the unmolesting meadows” free to “gallop for what must be joy” (as Philip Larkin puts it in his lovely poem on retired race horses, “At Grass”). Watching the tender interaction between the prisoners and the thoroughbreds, the woman who runs the ranch says, “Being around horses changes people.”
I can’t swear that such change actually happens—the samurai code of masculinity has, it must be said, its own highly developed sentimentalities. But Milch owns and races horses, and in the world he’s created, people are indeed left different from just watching horses. Both Ace and Gus catch a glimpse of a world finer and more peaceful than their own. So do the Pick Six quartet, who use some of their winnings to buy a racehorse. The first time the four go down to the stable to visit Mon Gateau, as he’s called, these hardened gamblers who’d barely noticed the death of that other horse just a couple of days earlier, are suddenly seized by wonder at the sheer splendor of what stands before them. Finally, one of them asks timidly, “Can we pet him?”
The answer is yes. They can even feed him carrots. Although it would be too much to say these rail-jockeys are transformed—they still bet and bicker—they are no longer quite the same. They’ve had the kind of revelation that Luck hopes we’ll have. They’re caught off guard by the gap between the hard business of living in this great fucking country and the radiant beauty of the world.