By Jeffrey Scott Holland
I hadn’t planned on watching the new HBO show “LUCK” – I don’t watch much modern television anymore, but when someone told me that one of the main characters is a Kentuckian, I had to check it out.
Sure enough, the show co-stars Nick Nolte in a surprising career comeback, playing a grizzled old Lexingtonian horse trainer. In the show’s second episode (which has yet to air officially but can already be seen on-demand on Insight Cable in Louisville) he even name-drops Keeneland. Gary L. Stevens, an actual Kentucky Derby winning jockey, is also a regular cast member.
But as I’m very quick to pounce on anything that casts the horse world in an unfair light, I’m wary about the gloomy-doomy feel of the show. It very heavily apes dark, brooding films like “Casino” and flirts with a cinematically nihilistic view of life where everything and everyone is a crook and conspiracies hide around every corner.
“LUCK” is engrossing viewing, but repeated doses of watching a bunch of greedy, angry, lonely, desperate men bickering with each other is rather like being hit repeatedly with a wet oven mitt.
The show centers on an unlikable gangster (played masterfully, it must be said, by Dustin Hoffman) and his unlikable henchmen, as well as a motley crew of unlikable “railbirds” whose lives revolve around betting on the horses from the cheap seats and dreaming of that big longshot win. Much of it feels like a Charles Bukowski novel come to life, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but by definition that means focusing on the negative and depressing aspects of human nature.
Nolte’s Kentuckian character, however, seems to be one of the good guys, relatively speaking. So far, he and a young aspiring female jockey are the show’s only sympathetic and likable characters. As the show continues, I will root for the Kentuckian to bring some honor and nobility to the low-toned atmosphere of the proceedings.
Something I do enjoy greatly is that there’s very little expository dialogue here. In fact, each episode is followed by a sort of video glossary, in which the producer explains some of the horse industry terminology used in that episode, from the opaque (“Bug”) to the obvious (“Pick 6″). This explanation of potentially misunderstood words has the effect of making the show stronger and stronger upon repeat viewing, and educating the audience along the way (even though much of what goes on in the show is rather unrealistic.)
Simply taken on its own merits, the show continues the growing trend of bombarding us with more characters and subplots than can be quickly assimilated. Sometimes this works elegantly (“The Sopranos,” “LOST,” “The Wire”) but it can also lead to self-indulgent underachieving (“Treme,” which seems to think all they have to do is show the characters doing anything and we’ll be happy) or reckless overachieving (“Big Love” and “Boardwalk Empire,” which try too hard to cram too much into each episode in order to keep up with all the dangling plotlines.) From the two episodes of “LUCK” seen so far, I’m optimistic that they’re going to find that fine balance.
But remember: It’s just a TV show.
Jeffrey Scott Holland is a native Kentuckian, painter, writer, actor, musician, paralegal – and interested in all things. He joins a growing stable of talented, interesting regular columnists for KyForward.com, bringing his gift of a well-turned phrase, quirkiness and humor to entertain and enlighten — and sometimes provoke — our readers. He can always be reached at any time, by anyone on the planet, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo from HBO