You know what luck is? Luck is believing you're lucky

“Don't be afraid.”
“Of what?”
“Of everything that can be."
In mid December of 2011 HBO, in their infinite wisdom decided to air a sneak peak of their upcoming series Luck. The show featured Dustin Hoffman making an extremely rare appearance on television and script that had been agonized over by David Milch, one of the few true TV auteurs. “Splitting the Atom” by Massive Attack opened an extremely slow burning pilot directed by Michael Mann. The whole episode reeked of cool. From the opening credit sequence, to Stuart Dryburgh's razor sharp horse race cinematography, to the killer dialogue that drove some incredibly developed characters (remember it's only been an hour by the time the closing credits rolled). HBO had given David Milch another shot and it had paid off in a big way. A beautiful way. A truly cool way. The show wouldn't officially air for another month and a half.

I was not happy about this.

I had been weighed. I had been measured. And I had been found wanting. Luckily the time passed quickly and I found myself ready to hunker down and enjoy another show that took real time and energy to watch. Not because its in any way bad, but because it's written with such poise that taking the time to really understand the themes and ideas being presented will ultimately make you (or in this case, Me) a better human being.

I know I know. Thats quite a bit of hyperbole for the second paragraph. But hear me out. David Milch understands a lot more about humanity than his often inaccessible writing lets on. Without going into too many details about the show, the viewer is faced with a cast of about thirteen characters to keep track of. And except for a the pair that is Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Farina, and the foursome of actors that play a strangely lucky group of gamblers, the characters are islands that rarely drift near one another. For those who are fans of Deadwood (and what I mean by this is, if you haven't watched the show by now, please please do so) you'll know that this is a similar formula to the beginnings of Milch's three season masterwork. The binding agent in both Luck and Deadwood is the setting. The titular town is a character in of itself as is the Santa Anita racetrack in Deadwood. Watching people pass by one another in such tangental manner is so much more telling of real life interaction than most television series, or films for that manner, dare to tread.

As the series progresses these characters do end up running into one another, though there is never a “wash up on the island” moment like Lost where suddenly everyone is thrown together.

What this ends up meaning is there is far more pressure put on the writers of the series. There's a storyline for seemingly every character so they need to be interesting. Now I'm talking like we're in some high stakes game here where if you don't earn your fans respect you lose. That's not the case. Not too many people watched Luck but thats from the get go. They never hemorrhaged viewers. They had a small and dedicated fan base and I think Deadwood was the same (though all the critical love since the show's cancellation has brought many more to the ill fated South Dakota camp).

Though Milch writes in a language all his own this show should've garnered more fans from the onset than Deadwood in my opinion. It boasted a few more familiar faces and was written in modern day vernacular. Deadwood was like Shakespeare. Spend enough time with it and you're golden but for virgin ears it took a bit to get into the rhythm of things. But aside from all that the show was very formulaic. Every episode represented a day and followed a slow rise to a climax represented by a horse race and then the come down as all the characters ended their respective days. And at the end of everyday the soothe sayer that quickly became Nick Nolte's character would deliver many a soliloquy in true Milch fashion to round up all the ideas that had been tossed around in the episode. These were nice bits as they helped organize my thoughts as a viewer and more importantly they showcase Nolte's true ability to act.

The show is called Luck for a very clear reason. Sure there's a quartet of gamblers who win enough prize money to win a race horse that ends up being an incredible animal right in the pilot. And one of those gamblers finds himself playing a lot of really good poker hands. But moving past those characters you learn the true nature of luck. You learn David Milch's definition of the word. I excerpted a quote at the beginning of this article that demonstrates what I mean perfectly. Ace Berstein (Dustin Hoffman) is let out of jail in the first scene. He then proceeds to methodically exact his revenge on those who put him there for a number of years. He does all this from box seats at the race track, the back of a beautiful Mercedes, or from the terrace of an incredible condo. This man made his luck years before going to prison and now that he's out he's going to do it again.

This is where the “making you a better person” angle comes in. Milch never traps any of his characters. One of his jockey characters is a hardline drug addict. In and out of rehab and such (a place Milch has been himself). But even a character who would be doomed in another series, especially because of his secondary nature to the rest of the show's cast, is given the chance to regain who he once was. Thats the real message behind Luck for me. Every person has a chance to make their life better. And the point that Milch really hits home with is this. If you were born with no chance at all, there is still time to try. And the beauty of luck is that you find it in the strangest places.

Luck was an idea very close to David Milch's heart. He's expressed a deep love for horses because of their power and grace. Even in the pilot, Milch makes it a point to have his horse trainer characters take the riding crop out of the racer's hands. He hates the mistreatment of these horses because he loves them. Its a true shame the show ended the way it did. Make whatever jokes you want to make about the title of the show versus what happened but what I said stands.

Deadwood was the first television show that I really sat down and payed attention to who was directing the episodes. I did this because Milch and his writing team were giving these filmmakers absolute gold to shoot. The same applies to Luck. Even more so actually because all the episodes were set up the same way so directors were really given a chance to express themselves and leave their mark on each episode. The horse races became the real showcase of vision for a lot of the auteurs who worked on the show's 9 episodes. Some were good. Some were incredible. Two of the races in particular ended up bringing just a hint of water to my eyes because of both their beauty and because of my amazement that they got some of the coverage they managed to get. I was quite nervous at first because Michael Mann left such a stamp on the pilot I wasn't sure the show would work without his touch. Luckily for me I was wrong and every episode has it's own spark to it.

I was really going to provide more photos of some of the horse races but its really a waste. You don't get the full effect from stills.

So it was good while it lasted. And I know its only tv but

I’m going to miss the optimistic little smile on Dustin Hoffman’s face as he watches his horse on his webcam. I’m going to miss that little goat wandering around the stable, nuts the size of pumpkins. I’ll miss Escalante murmuring advice from the stands and Walter sitting in the stable, wondering about seeing a goat from the front, a horse from the rear, and a man from all sides. I’ll even miss the bit players, like Claire or Mike or Joey, people who weren’t in the main action but were just off to the side, informing what the others did and giving us a sense of who they were as people. And I’ll miss that horse the episode ends on, craning its neck over the stall, staring off into the distance at something we don’t see, its eyes both warm and weird to us. It’s a fellow living being, yet we’ll never really understand it, much as we try. But that’s true of people, too, and still we keep trying. That's where I'll leave the show: a place where we try to keep finding understanding and keep coming up short. Yet we keep plugging away because we must.”

- Todd VanDerWerff

Thanks for reading, gang.


In Defense of the Procedural

In the past few weeks, New York Mag has decided to take on the hefty job of determining the best TV drama of the last 25 years. Their approach, albeit nonsensical, is quite entertaining. They've set it up like a tournament, pitting one against another, then having the winner advance to the next round. This ridiculous system has led to a lot of silly match ups like "My So-called Life vs. The Wire" or "Breaking Bad vs. Friday Night Lights." It has also led to a giant fucking travesty.

The fact is that everyone's a critic, and everyone has their opinions. And to be honest, there's literally no real-world impact of some guy saying Twin Peaks is better than Battlestar Galactica. Not to mention, no agreed definition of the word "best." No, my problem is not in what they picked (they're not done yet, though I have my suspicion), it's with how they picked them. They're on round 3 and we have, let's see, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos. All the shows have one thing in common: they are all examples of long-form TV story structures. Shows like The X-files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer get tossed to the side when pitted against long-form juggernauts and while sometimes it is an example of one show being a boundary breaking, heart-stoppingly good show, sometimes it's just bias.

For whatever reason, we've all fallen in love with long-form Television lately. And while, I'll be the first to admit there are certain stories you could only tell with long-form (Homeland being the first that comes to mind), I'm becoming increasingly aggravated with the pervading assumption that long-form=quality.

Let's talk examples: Mad Men is coming back to our living rooms this week, and with it, the customary parade of critical fellatio. Mad Men is, in my opinion, one of the most irritating long-form Dramas on TV. It has some of the worst actors I can imagine (January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser), side-plots worthy of the CW (no offense to my boys at Supernatural) that occasionally pop up and take over the show (most of these side plots involve January Jones and Vincent Kartheiser), and the constant need to punch you in the face with the 1960s. It always seems like the writers are afraid that if they don't constantly remind you what decade it is, you might forget. As if the indoor smoking wasn't enough. The show occasionally replaces plot points with long pensive shots of people smoking and staring at nothing (this happens, literally every episode), and constantly undercuts it's own characters by forcing them into archetypes so the writers can bring up some social issue (usually about sexism). Now, I want to stress that I don't hate Mad Men. Sometimes, the show manages to be really goddamn interesting and fun to watch. I just want to point out that the show has some serious problems. Problems that are so often overlooked because no one wants to be the one critic in the room not getting on his knees and facing Mad Men Mecca.

Now let's talk about the procedural. In the advent of this long-form boon, there's been two major responses I've noticed from the world of procedural TV. First, you have the unsuccessful (though one more immediately than the other) Play Boy Club, and Pan-Am. These two shows pitifully attempted to grasp on to whatever makes Mad Men so popular and cram it all into a procedural structure. Unfortunately, they both wound up listless messes because when you invite the comparison to an established AMC flagship, you might as well shoot yourself in the foot.

But there are other procedurals that perfectly merge the long-form season arc while also giving solid individual stories every episode. Shows like Justified, Luther, Doctor Who, The Good Wife, and (the late) Terriers. Shows that manage(d) to tell compelling and dynamic stories with only 45 minutes of screen time to tell them. It is an art form, and a difficult one at that, to tell a concise story. As any writer will tell you, a short story is often far more difficult than a novel. And while we're at the comparison, let's go down the Rushdie road and talk about the TV-Book comparison. A lot of popular novel writers are discovering that, to avoid the hatchet job most movies will give them, the best solution is to get a TV adaptation. The wildly popular (and increasingly annoying) True Blood, and the very big budget (and shining bastion of all that is good fantasy) Game of Thrones both stand as testaments to why any novelist worth their best-seller status should be taking their words to TV. But if a season is a book and a chapter is an episode then since when is a chapter better than a short story? This is my point, really. TV critics seem to be in the business of excusing poorly paced, or badly written moments, as long as they're leading somewhere, yet never give the proper credit to the shows that don't hide behind their ending climax, and instead just give you a brilliant episode of television with no aspirations of building towards a series finale.

Before I wrap up, I want to talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I so often do. This whole tirade really began with Buffy losing to Mad Men so I guess I should at least explain why that pissed me off. Buffy is campy. It's sometimes woefully soapy, badly acted, horribly choreographed, and usually a little annoying. BUT, Buffy the Vampire Slayer produced some of television's most shining moments. The episode "The Body" took a stark and realistic look at death. And not monster caused death, just aneurysm caused death. The episode has no score, and only four scenes. The show ignored conventions to the point of being almost experimental. There's a great moment when Xander Harris punches a plaster wall out of anger, and then can't get his hand out. This constant finger pointed at the conventional while also rejecting the cliche is what makes Buffy one of my favorite shows ever. I would also gesture emphatically towards episodes like "Hush" where Whedon threw out his signature snappy dialogue in favor of a totally silent and often terrifying episode. Or "The Zeppo" which is a great dissection of being cool in high school, from sex to popularity to rebellion. Plus, the episode serves an example of Buffy making fun of itself by constantly having Xander on the sidelines, only barely involved with a fight to save the world from an apocalypse. All in 45 minutes. No pieces were set up in the previous episode to get us there. We were given the beginning middle and end of a great goddamn story that grabbed our hearts, or tickled our brains, or totally redefined what TV was and we didn't need a "previously on" to enjoy it.

So, I guess, fuck you NY Mag.