Luck and the New Drama

Jill Hennessey

Luck, a new HBO horse-betting drama created by David Milch of NYPD Blue fame, is, in a way, representative of the new look and feel of high-end television drama in the wake of shows like the Sopranos and the Wire. There’s a visibly top shelf Hollywood sheen to the cinematography, direction and recognizable faces emblazoned on the future DVD box sets. And beneath the Dustin Hoffman feature credit, often lies a murky, almost misanthropic depiction of America past or present or alternative zombie-riddled present. In ten episodes or so, less than half the amount of more conventional procedurals like House o CSI, this new breed of drama makes use of variable plot pacing to tell their story over the course of a shorter time, more akin to what television used to know as a mini-series, more like a film.

Two Hollywood films in particular, Big Trouble in Little China in 1986 and Ocean’s Eleven (the 1960 original or any instance of the 2001 remake franchise would do), relates to Luck intimately, in non-obvious ways. Big Trouble in Little China, starring a young Kurt Russell and an even younger-looking Kim Cattrall, also showcased Dennis Dun, one of Luck’s many recognizable if unnameable faces, in his most noteworthy role as Russell’s Chinese sidekick. The deeper relation to Luck reveals itself in the similar ways Dun and race in general are used to provide credence to the depiction of a dark realism – dark with oriental mysticism in the film, dark with disrepute and sleaze in Luck.

Whereas the rest of the television landscape struggles to find a use for race in their worlds, Luck and other neo-dramas employ a sort of racial pragmatism for the purposes of providing grit and authenticity. Dun portrays Leo Chan, a crass card playing business owner with a stereotypically thick Asian accent. Elsewhere in the storyline, we are exposed to the Latino cadence of Escalante, a respected and charismatic horse trainer played convincingly by John Ortiz. Luck, more than other shows in recent years, implores the viewer to work a little harder on parsing dialogue and story progression (will we really have to learn to differentiate horses?), Escalante and Chan perform exactly this function, while providing necessary color to an otherwise all-white canvas. Like Big Trouble in Little China typifies the Hollywood moment in the 1980s where it was discovered that color added invaluable texture and credibility to familiar narratives – adventure in Chinatown or a Black detective in Beverly Hills; Luck represents a similar “enlightenment” on the small screen.

Luck luckily has the benefit of contemporary Hollywood’s callousness to issues of race; standing in contrast to pre-1980s Hollywood’s general insensitivity to those same issues. Racial themes today are usually communicated within predetermined archetypes and cliches; otherwise, race is largely a functional tool wielded when necessary by film and television.

Perhaps more directly, the basic premise of Ocean’s Eleven, an all-star roster of parts all with specific contributions to the team’s success, is related not only in Luck’s apparent plot (degenerate and decrepit gamblers are fundamentally the same as dapper and handsome criminal minds) but in the show’s very inception. Nick Nolte is certainly the muscle of the show. He flexes his chops and the audience reveres as if trained. Dennis Farina provides the brains; not the intellect, but the mind of the series. He asks questions for us and holds our hands while we explore an unfamiliar world of jockeys and ponies. Richard Kind provides comic relief in the most entertainingly dirtbag-like way he can muster. And if seeing Jill Hennessy return to television doesn’t do something comparable to watching Julia Roberts in film, as in make your heart flutter, there’s something wrong with you, not Luck.

Throw in Dustin Hoffman, Michael Mann, and David Milch to fill out the executive portion of the IMDB page and you have a rat pack. Throw in an obscure niche subculture, the aforementioned funny talking ethnics, and keep the stakes high enough to maintain the suspense every week and you have an all-star roster, every part functioning in this new drama machine. The suspense is very much the glue guy of the team. It convinces us that Dustin Hoffman’s character is somehow as interesting as the always impending horse race. Suspense keeps all the moving parts as well the viewers hooked to the machine like a drunk with a pension at an OTB. Luck is like that. It undoubtedly takes something away from you as you watch, whether that is simply time, patience, or willingness to watch horses die. But that’s the gamble and the fun. These first highly entertaining episodes, however, give us hope that there’s winnings to be had (at least by white people.)

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