HBO's "Luck": Good, Bad or Ugly?
HBO has introduced a new series, "Luck," -- I'm sure that every racing fan on Earth--well, OK, at least in the U.S.--is aware of this, and watched the show. We tuned in if for no other reason than the fact that horse racing, which was America's Sport in the 1930s (see previous review, "Saratoga")--is not often the subject of an episode of a series, never mind the setting.
[We' who love the horses and the sport passionately--obsessively--are forced to admit that our beloved industry has lost ground (at least, popularity) to football, basketball, baseball, soccer--even to hot dog-eating contests. (You think I jest! Several years ago, ESPN was slated to show the Santa Anita Derby. I was parked in front of the TV, popcorn and Racing Form in-hand. I was ready. But instead of showing the prestigious race, gorgeous track and beautiful horses--ESPN chose to pre-empt the Derby with a hot-dog eating contest. I was not aware that gluttony is a sport, until that afternoon.)]
For those of you who've not seen the first episode of "Luck,"; who don't get HBO or who live outside the U.S. and couldn't see it--in a nutshell, "Luck" takes place at Santa Anita Park, one of America's most beautiful race courses. The series boasts some gifted actors, including: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina--and, thank God, Gary Stevens. (I loved him as a jock, I love him as an actor. The guy can do no wrong, IMHO.) Oh, yes, and Jill Hennessy plays a veterinarian whose 'tude leaves much to be desired...
Luck was written by David Milch, himself a Thoroughbred owner who's won a couple of Breeders' Cup races--so he has the industry chops, to be sure. But based on the first episode--which I wanted to like, a lot, but hated myself for hanging on to that desire--I'm afraid that, as a writer (and probably the one who pitched the story to producer, Michael Mann)--he relied on the tried-and-true myth that everyone involved with horse racing is a con artist; ne'er-do-well; mobster or loser-dreamer who'll never realize his/her dream, ever.
After just one episode that drew one million viewers, the show was renewed for a second season. On the surface, this is a stroke of luck, in itself. Considering that the series takes place at a racetrack (horse) and not Talladega--this may fall into the "miracle" category.
As the show unfolds, the viewer is introduced to many characters, and their respective small stories within the larger tale. (Don't worry, I'm not going to describe the show to you and ruin it if you've not seen it. But I do want to give my impressions here.) Some viewers thought that the first show was a tad slow. Others thought that it was just fine. I have my thoughts--and they're not necessarily good.
You see, I'm not sure how the series will fare. My key concern is that in many ways, this is HBO's latest mob TV show--and I find that to be short-sighted, at best, insulting to the industry, at worst.
HBO, you may recall, is the cable channel that gave The Sopranos to the world, much to the chagrin of many Italian-Americans. (Include me in that list). Sure, Luck is set at the beautiful, lush Santa Anita, not Jersey or the boroughs. The scenes take place at a race track, not a pasta joint on Arthur Avenue--but I have a feeling in my gut that this show is based on a premise that is oh-too-familiar. That premise is that all racetrackers are somehow crooked--and that those who aren't, are the object of ridicule because they're not cool enough to be a loser or con man.
This is sad.
It's also crazy-making, it drives me up a tree, because I am sick of the contemporary notion that, in order to draw an audience--movies and TV shows must feature heavy doses of sex and/or violence. We know the reality of this: several films in Oscar contention in 2012 are not of that variety.
And yet the myth persists, that a movie or show must be "exciting": and that excitement comes in the form of knee-capping, blood-letting and almost violent sex.
And the logic goes, that if the myth persists that entertainment must feature ample doses of sexual or violent content--gratuitous or "germane to the story," (oh, please)--and if that myth is believed by the money people at HBO--then of course, a show about horse racing must feature characters who have anger management issues; swear like truckers; think nothing of offing (killing) a human or a horse to get what they want--and who treat women like tidbits on the buffet.
That premise makes me sad, but more than that, it really annoys me. Like many of you, I have spent decades talking, writing, campaigning--to show horse racing in its finest light. To introduce people to the horse (Thoroughbred and Arabian), and get those people excited about the premise of watching them run like mad toward the finish line. So many of us work to demonstrate that the sport is a community of basically good people--like any other industry. There are no more lawbreakers in horse racing than in the hardware industry.
I may be naive, but truly I believe that the racing community is far more diverse and rich than the one-dimensional characters painted in Luck. Nick Nolte's character, a trainer who loves his horses, genuinely, and is amazed by the good fortune of having a potentially Big Horse in his barn--is joined by only a couple other characters who are in the game for noble reasons. The key reason is LOVE: love of The Horse, love of the game. The majority of the other characters are in it strictly for money--and it doesn't matter how they acquire the cash.
Horses are the vehicles for those characters--but not the vehicles whom we know them to be. When I think of a horse as a vehicle--I'm thinking that that horse is taking us on a ride, a romp, a leap and a dash toward bliss. Horses take us on a wild ride, simply by being in our lives. They can take their owners and trainers, jockeys and all connections on a life-altering adventure, like winning the Triple Crown.
But the majority of the people in Luck don't give a tiny rat's patootie about the horses--the magnificent gifts from God who populate the stalls, who have the potential to love, and to give, and to run their hearts out. And they do it because they want to make us happy. What an amazing creature.
And that angers me, that so many characters don't really care about horses, only about their own selfish gains. These are not the racetrackers I know. These are not even the racetrackers painted in Saratoga (the film). With precious few exceptions--and those exceptions are precious souls, indeed--but almost without exception, Mr. Milch has painted a community in which violence and using people and horses to get what you want is "just how it is." And women--women aren't even a valued part of the equation. I can think of only four female characters so far: an exercise rider; a woman whose role wasn't defined, that I could tell; Jill Hennessy's aforementioned character, whom I disliked immediately--and, oh, yes. There are hookers.
The lack of strong, smart, competent, kind-hearted, horse-loving racing women in Luck --makes my eyes bleed. I could not but notice that females play small roles, (so far), and none of them is a big-time owner, trainer or jockey. There is no character like Julie Krone--so far.
Neither are representatives, or archetypes of great horsewomen like Virginia Kraft Payson, Penny Chenery, Marylou Whitney, Maggi Moss, Suzie O'Cain, Linda Rice, Allaire du Pont, Barbara Banke, Gretchen Jackson, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Haya--or any of the other brilliant women who've graced racetracks since time immemorial. No, women in HBO's West-Coast Arthur Avenue saga have yet to prove themselves (exercise rider); have a lousy attitude or are there simply on a "cash-and-carry" basis.
I'm not being contrary for the sake of being contrary. There are many people who love Luck. The only character I love thus far is Nick Nolte's trainer, because he represents so many people I know--real people, with real vocations, their callings, to be in this sport.
I would love to love this show--I would like, genuinely, to say that it will help grow the sport. Unfortunately, after Week One, the only thing that I envision growing is the ulcer in my stomach lining. I find it utterly ironic that TCM showed Saratoga last week--a 75-year-old film, made in 1937--and that that film, with all its innocent, flirtatious fun--as far-closer to reality than Luck. The interesting contrast is that, while Saratoga introduced archetypes of real racing personalities--Luck, on the other hand, introduces us to entirely too many angry, violent, deceitful caricatures. The difference between an archetype and a caricature is vast, and eternal. (An archetype is eternal: a caricature ends up being a joke who is soon forgotten.)
This is not to say that I won't tune in to the next episode, for truly, I hope that Luck learns how to rein in the stereotypes, and fleshes out the characters so that they have three--even four!--dimensions. (Greeks and Italians who are crooked: my, what a refreshing concept. Seen it. Didn't like it.)
I'll watch just one more episode, to see if the roles of women get better--or if Mr.s Milch and Mann really are living in the 19th Century.
I want to like Luck.
I want to write the next great horse racing movie.
I want a lot of things--whether they'll happen, I don't know.
As an Italian-American--I'm offended.
As a woman--I'm incensed.
As a racetracker--I'm sad and irked, because in its present incarnation--Luck represents every stereotype that those in the non-racing world believe to be true.
Now, excuse me:
I've got to pay off a jockey for fixing a race;
admit that I don't know anything about horses, 'cause I'm just a girl;
kneecap a guy and
enjoy a nice glass of Chianti with my Uncle Guido. Salute, e buona notte, Baccala Faccia.