Luck’s Fortunes: HBO renews its newest show, perhaps in hopes you will still make the effort to get to know the characters

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Dennis Farina and Dustin Hoffman. (HBO)
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Today’s HBO is a different organization from the one that cancelled David Milch's western drama, "Deadwood," just after its third season six years ago.

Witness the pace-setting quickness of the cable network's decision to renew Milch's latest, "Luck," for 10 episodes in 2013, announced just days after the show’s proper television premiere last week.

Part of this has to do with the unique scheduling problems posed by filming at a real-life racetrack, in between its own active seasons. But the back half of the deal has to do with the network coming out strong for a show that may not have made many alliances yet.

The 1.1 million people who tuned in Sunday before last couldn’t beat Showtime’s "Shameless," though the padded-out number of 3.3. million—which includes sneak-peek and replay viewers—sounds better. Most importantly, the promise of a second season lets viewers know that nine hours invested over the next two months will lead to another 10 hours of payoff early next year.

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This preemptive guarantee of a partnership between network and viewer is an interesting strategy, and perhaps a necessary one. Whereas the characters on "Deadwood" were (mostly) all meeting each other, in camp, for the first time—as viewers (and HBO) watched—the bonds between the characters that populate "Luck" come prepackaged with long, intertwined histories. And it will take a few story-hours for all that detail to be revealed. (Reminder: critics have already seen all nine episodes of Season One, and are doing their best not to spoil things week-to-week.)

With the second episode, we’re only starting to get a sense of this history: We learn that Dustin Hoffman's character, Ace, helped the young Escalante get his shot, if not as a trainer, as someone at least inside the stables (as opposed to just bringing carrots to the gate). Escalante, it seems, hasn’t remembered or hasn’t put this information together with the current look of Hoffman’s weathered face; when Ace asks him how much his carrots cost, the Peruvian trainer only asks why a man of Ace’s diversified portfolio has to ask about bags of produce that maybe cost as much as $15.

Ep.2 Clip - Ready?

 

Ace also explains to The Greek (and by extension, to viewers) his relationship with the shadowy powers responsible for his recent imprisonment. This yarn goes back a whole quarter-century! Back in that day, Ace says, the as-yet-unseen “Mike,” had a great mind for business—before he started messing with the coke trade. Turns out, Mike took to hiding his excess product in the same co-op building that Ace’s grandson used as a party house while in college. One complaint from a neighbor, and one powder-sniffing police dog later, Ace was forced to either take responsibility for the drugs as his own—or else give up Mike’s crew to the Feds. Gus reminds him that if the shoe had been on the other foot, Mike would have given him up all too easily. Be that as it may, Ace counters, he won’t rat on an enemy. (Not a bad friend to have, the show is telling us. Nor a bad grandfather.)

Ace meets with two members of Mike’s crew—one of whom we’ve seen before. That dude, Nick DiRossi, is still over-selling the whole “we’re still pals” business that he was running last week. He keeps saying things like “the Ace is back in place,” in tones so ingratiating as to be irritating, but this time Ace keeps from knocking over chairs and tearing open his dress shirt. Besides, he’s here to set his erstwhile pals up, by spelling out his plan for buying the ailing race-track: an economically weakening tax base means that slots could be potentially made legal on the track’s free square-footage. If Team Mike puts its name on the sale papers (which Ace can’t, in light of his felon status), they’ll get a kickback and everyone can get friendly again. Later, The Greek asks Ace if his old associates are moving the way he wants them to—and Ace predicts that there’s no chance Mike won’t steal a good idea once it’s presented to him.

And that’s all the drama that happens away from the races. On the field and in the stables, there’s a lot of would-be befriending taking place, too. Rosie, the “exercise girl” who has been breaking in Old Walter’s latest horse—Getting’up Morning—wants a shot at riding him when it counts, during the afternoon races. Her opening gambit is to aver that she and horse “get along” really well, after a particularly impressive trial run. (“Beggin’ like a chancer on the dole,” she says of herself, right after Walter neglects to indicate his intentions either way.)

But the old man (Nick Nolte) has another, older friend from Kentucky in mind: the recently sobered-up jockey Ronnie Jenkins. In eventually coming around to offering Ronnie the mount, Walter tells him what he only hinted at, in soliloquy, last week: the father of Gettin’up Morning, a horse named Delphi, was killed for $30 million in insurance money by the witless, moneyed family that once employed him.

The old man is still smarting over whether he could have found out in time to do anything, when Ronnie reminds him: “You’ve got a chance with this one.” This apparently earns him the right to ride that lineage. After giving Rosie the bad news that she’s out of a job, though, Walter is prepared to offer her a consolation prize, and an incipient act of friendship—by arranging with the stuttering agent Rathburn to have Rosie set up at a lower-level track in Portland.

Not everyone has such an easy time keeping up with old friends and making new ones, however. Last week’s crew of Pick 6-winning degenerates hasn’t figured out a way to work together yet, let alone come to a common understanding of how to wear their newly acquired wealth. Renzo wants to buy the horse whose surprise finish in the fourth race cleared their path to riches, but Marcus comes out against the plan, since the whole point of their not posing for pictures with a novelty-sized check was to keep anyone from knowing that they collectively came into some money. (In any case, Renzo’s plan becomes moot when another trainer claims the horse, and wins the 50/50 “shake-off” after the claim race.)

Meantime, horse-handicap genius Jerry has to go to the poker table to really feel a sense of risk, which he does by blowing nearly 10 grand amidst some gently racist wind-up banter with a Chinese card shark named Leo Chan. There’s a sneaking sense that Jerry could be egged on to a point of blowing his whole Pick 6 winnings. Though his luck evens out at the end of the episode, after a “house ruling” allows Jerry to throw another $25,000 on the table in the middle of a hand.

As Jerry comes home to the degenerates’ four-way hotel suite, he sees the fourth member of the Pick 6 crew—the poor, bloodied Lonnie—being dragged under aid of Marcus’ wheelchair indoors. Having previously berated Lonnie for his new suit—as well as his naïve reaction to two women trying to tempt him into an insurance scam—Marcus is no longer wheedling or ball-busting the man. He’s just helping him into his room.

Though the sequence with the “two ladies” who drug Lonnie and try to kill him has some juice in it, it’s also a bit beside the point. The real climax of that arc is the fact that Marcus may start to feel as sentimental as Renzo. That he may actually start to care about the other people in his orbit as much as he does the horses. Anyone initially nervous that a lack of racing-expertise might keep them from loving "Luck" might have seen, right there, an opening of sorts for befriending this show.

Seth Colter Walls will be writing about "Luck" every Monday.

Previously: Luck's fortunes: Handicapping David Milch's new series for HBO