DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This Sunday, HBO unveils its newest TV series. It's called "Luck." It's set in and around the world of horse racing and it's loaded with thoroughbred talent. David Milch created it, Michael Mann is the executive producer and directed the pilot. And the stars include Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It isn't a long shot that David Milch's newest series for HBO, called "Luck," will be on par with his HBO series "Deadwood". It's a sure thing. That's because HBO sent out all nine episodes of the show's first season for preview, so there's no guesswork here. The racetrack is at the center of "Luck," with every character and plot line orbiting around it.
But you don't have to like horse racing, or even understand it, to get pulled in and swept along. It examines the track, and its various intrigues, from every possible perspective - from the owners and trainers of the horses, to the jockeys riding them and the gamblers betting on them. We go from the executive suites to the stables, spending time getting to know the people and problems of each. It's like "Downton Abbey" with thoroughbreds.
And speaking of thoroughbreds, that description extends to just about everyone working on "Luck." And what a collection of collaborators. David Milch hit it big before "Deadwood" with "NYPD Blue" in the '90s. Movie director Michael Mann produced two visually stunning TV series, "Miami Vice" and "Crime Story," in the '80s.
One of the biggest TV stars of "Luck," Nick Nolte, became a star thanks to the "Rich Man, Poor Man" in the '70s. And the other biggest star of "Luck," Dustin Hoffman, is new to series television, but his stardom stretches all the way back to "The Graduate" in the '60s.
And now, here they all are, doing great work at the same time. Milch throws us into the world of this California racetrack just as forcefully and assuredly, as he did when introducing us to the mining town of Deadwood. Mann directs the pilot with one eye as a documentarian and the other as an artist. Scenes and images look real but often are beautiful, especially the racing scenes.
The pictures, as well as the scripts, capture the raw power of the racehorses, who in the opening episodes often are reined in, waiting patiently for the proper time to break free and show their stuff.
The actors are exactly the same way. Dustin Hoffman plays Ace Bernstein, a powerful player who's just been released after three years in prison. Nolte plays Walter Smith, a former trainer who now owns a horse for which he has secret high hopes.
And while the other actors and actresses in "Luck" spend the opening episodes establishing their talents as well as their characters, Hoffman and Nolte play it cool, biding their time in the rear of the pack. Until, almost effortlessly, they stretch their muscles and show what they're made of.
This is a sample from episode three. Not a pivotal scene, just a nice one. Hoffman's Ace is considering a young financial whiz in his business firm for a more lucrative job and summons the kid to his luxurious office for a private meeting. Patrick J. Adams plays the young man. Hoffman, as Ace, shows his hand right away.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "LUCK")
DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (as Ace Bernstein) Do you make a million dollars? Simple question.
PATRICK J. ADAMS: (As Nathan Israel) No, sir.
HOFFMAN: (As Ace Bernstein) Go home. Come back tomorrow, tell me every (bleep) thing you did between now and then. If I like what I hear, I'll give you a million dollars for the next 12 months if you work for me.
ADAMS: (As Nathan Israel) Doing what?
HOFFMAN: (As Ace Bernstein) That's the first thing you write down. Before I left here I asked him a stupid (bleeped) question.
BIANCULLI: Hoffman plays Ace like a coiled snake, while Nolte plays his character like a battered veteran boxer. And there's so much other talent onscreen, singling out some would almost be unfair to the others. But if you're a "Deadwood" fan, you'll see some familiar faces. You'll see them from other superb TV shows, as well. Eventually, you'll even see Michael Gambon, star of my favorite TV miniseries of all time, "The Singing Detective."
Finally, there are the horses - these majestic creatures who are called upon at times to share scenes and interact with various human cast members. How the horses react to each person feels primal, honest, real. And so does "Luck." The way this HBO series jumps out of the gate this first season, it'll be back for another lap around the track. Bet on it.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.