The Problem with HBO’s ‘Luck’

Storied showrunner David Milch debuted his long-awaited follow-up to Deadwood last night. (Yes, that’s right, we’re doing him the courtesy of pretending John from Cincinnati never happened.) Although Luck won’t officially premiere until January 29th, HBO ran a sneak preview of the show’s first episode after Boardwalk Empire‘s season finale. And we wanted to like it. We could not, in fact, wait to get a peek at it. But, while we realize great shows can have shaky pilots, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t worried.

Luck takes place in the world of horse racing — a somewhat alien realm for those of us who ignore the Kentucky Derby and have never set foot in an OTB. This means that the distinguished trio behind the series — executive producers Milch and Michael Mann, plus producer/star Dustin Hoffman — needs to quickly find a way to make those of us with no interest in the sport care about the jockeys, managers, and gamblers who populate its world. So it’s confusing that they seem to have so purposely chosen to hold viewers at arm’s length.

As he demonstrated on Deadwood, Milch is particularly adept at creating fully realized and believable worlds that immerse viewers in an experience very different from their own. This aim is reflected in the style of Luck, too — the shaky cinematography, the frequent point-of-view shots, the drab color palette that instantly enlivens when we’re watching beautifully shot race footage. Milch and Mann’s visual aesthetic is perfectly suited to the subject matter.

Where they lost us, last night, was in the sound editing. As long-time Robert Altman fans, we’re fully capable of enjoying a film or TV show where we can’t make out every single word of dialogue. But Luck took that approach to new heights of incomprehensibility in its debut episode. Conversations between characters were confusing for two main reasons: First and foremost, presumably as the result of a conscious decision to be “naturalistic,” most actors mumbled and slurred, and lots of background noise remained in the mix. At the same time, the show is packed with racing jargon and slang, meaning that even if each character were enunciating perfectly, it still would have been somewhat difficult to figure out what everyone was saying.

The show’s creators may be betting that the hype behind Luck will keep viewers watching until they start to get the hang of what’s going on. For our part, we intend to give them a few more episodes before we give up. But considering that several Twitter users seemed to have the same problem with the premiere that we did, this horse-racing drama may be taking a bigger gamble than it can afford.