Three episodes in, I’m most surprised that Luck is as formulaic as it is.
Keep in mind that I’m not saying this is a bad thing. One of the pleasures of TV is the way that the medium uses formulas and expectations to create situations where it can surprise the audience or please us with seeing certain things we want to see happen occur. But Luck is doing something very interesting with its ideas of formula: It’s blending what is, essentially, an episode-by-episode formula with the larger HBO ideal of creating a sort of novel for television. Much of this may seem a bit too in the weeds and TV writer theory-heavy, but I think it speaks to how the show is already lulling us into a certain sense of security about what’s going to happen and what this show is all about.
Now, all television shows have episode-by-episode formulas. Even the most unconventional TV show in the world has certain things that have to happen in every episode, particularly once you peel back all of the layers of muscle and fat and look at the storytelling skeleton down at the base. At the same time, HBO shows have started to stretch this sort of structure out to the season-long level, so that formulas only really become apparent when a show has been on the air for three or four years. This is clearly one of the structures Luck is adhering to, as we’re here in the third episode, and the storyline is still mostly being set up for us, instead of really pressing forward.
But at the same time, creator David Milch is an old-time TV hand, who cut his teeth on the dramas of the ‘80s. Now, the dramas of the ‘80s broke the ground that networks like HBO and FX have made their home base in the last 10 years, but they were also deeply indebted to what had come before. Those shows had rigid formulas, where every episode was often a version of every previous episode with new guest stars and slightly different circumstances. There was never a real risk that, say, Kojak would open with everybody singing songs. What the producers of the best dramas of the pre-Hill Street Blues era realized was that when you would break with a rigid formula, it made it all the more exciting. (A good modern example would be the few times that, say, Law & Order or CSI set aside its incredibly rigid structure and did something different. There are few things more exciting for a faithful viewer than this.) Setting up a formula takes discipline, sure, but it also takes a certain kind of stubbornness, and there’s no possible way to argue that TV was better when it was more formulaic.
The dramas of the ‘80s still had formulas, but they were harder to find because the shows were trying new things with serialized storytelling and complicated character arcs and the like. By the seventh season of Hill Street Blues, the formula was apparent and could be read back into early episodes of the show, beyond even simple things like “Each episode takes place during one day of the cops’ lives.” Even the one show of the era that seemed to be directly going against the idea of having a formula—St. Elsewhere—was a show that became vaguely predictable in its unpredictability. When a show trains us to expect it to do something wild and out of nowhere, we start expecting it to do exactly that. To a real degree, the reason that most TV shows stop being as interesting as they were for fans after 100 episodes or five seasons is because we’ve all become TV writers trying to write a spec for the show: We know exactly what the show is about, and exactly what it’s going to do. It can’t really surprise us anymore, and that makes it just a series that we hang out with for a little while, remembering the good old days.
What does all of this have to do with Luck? As we’re starting to see after three episodes, there’s a very rigid skeleton to this thing, one that allows for lots of grace notes around the edges but still gives us a very definite sense that things are progressing in a certain way. Like many Milch shows, each episode of the series takes place over the course of one day. But even beyond that, there are numerous touchstones each episode has to hit for it to feel like an episode of Luck: There has to be a race around the episode’s midpoint, meaning that the climax of the episode happens with 15-25 minutes of action remaining, creating a second half that’s almost all falling action. There has to be a Walter monologue (or two or three), usually in the back half of the episode. The episode has to end with a scene where Ace and Gus talk about what they’ve learned today. (It’s not as obvious as all that, but these scenes are clearly meant to be thematic cappers to the episode.)
But the formula extends beyond the writing and even into the directing. Notice how all of the scripts clear most of the stuff off their plates after the races to get to late afternoon and nighttime as quickly as possible. The cameras make the most of these time of day differences. It’s the oldest cliché in the book to play with the idea that a new day represents new possibilities and the night represents a time when things slowly sink into a dark morass that is inescapable. And yet Luck is playing with this very idea at a structural level. It doesn’t even obliquely comment on the idea that, say, Rosie, the girl who seems to represent a lot of the series’ hopes for the future of the track and the America it represents, mostly does stuff in the first halves of the episodes, while Walter, who represents faded possibility, mostly hangs out around the ends of episodes. He’s there in the mornings or when the horses run, but he largely remains silent until it’s time to monologue near the end of an episode. (I’m not saying that the characters associated with day and night can’t appear at the time they’re not associated with, just that their screentime and dialogue is more heavily weighted toward one pole than the other.)
To a real degree, the show has these characters who are either day characters or afternoon/night characters. By utilizing the idea of each episode being a day with certain hallmarks to hit, the show subconsciously trains us to expect certain characters to behave in certain ways—even in its third episode—and that sets up the possibility for really jarring new contexts when we see, say, Rosie hanging around a casino at night or something. Milch and his writers and Michael Man and his directors are using the oldest, oldest symbolic tricks in the book to get us to anticipate certain things and to create a rigidity that already feels confining three episodes in. But that rigidity is intentional, and it’s meant as a comment on the world these people exist in, a dying world that needs to adhere to certain outdated rituals. (Now I really want to see Milch make a show about the modern Catholic church.) There are people of the day—people of possibility—and people of the night—people of decay and regret. And yet everyone—no matter how old or young—represents both possibility and regret.
Look at the kinds of people we’re already seeing prominently in both worlds. Ace is a creature of the day—because he’s out there making things happen and getting his revenge (no matter how slowly)—but he’s also a creature of the night, ruminating on what was and what might have been. Escalante is out there keeping the horses running and making sure the wheels don’t fall off the wagon during the day, but here, we see him at night, at home, watching the horses on TV and hooking up with Jo (who continues to frustrate me because she’s such a dull, underutilized character, and Milch can write a hell of a female character when he wants to). The four gamblers bumble toward new answers and new riches during the day, but they find those possibilities slowly sapped away by the night’s general malaise. The money slips through their fingers, and they very nearly die. And then we have the horses, who represent a kind of hope for so many of these characters, yet are put away at the end of every day, safely enclosed in stalls.
These are the sorts of things I’m more interested in with Luck than I am the plot movement at this point. This is not to say that the plot isn’t of interest, since we’ve got Dustin Hoffman meeting Joan Allen, and I’m sure that will be pretty awesome, and we’ve got the gamblers buying Mon Gateau off Dan Dority, and we’ve got the entrance of that one kid from Suits as the representation of the new way America makes money: through elaborate shell games designed to hide which cash is going where. We’re still very much in the set-up phase in terms of plot and character arcs. But I’m sort of amazed how we’re also being set up to expect certain things, to believe in certain formulas and certain symbolic representations, because I’m all but certain these rugs we’re standing on will be yanked out from underneath us. And at that point, Luck stands a good chance of becoming something special indeed.
- A reminder that I have seen the entirety of this season, though I wrote each review after watching the episodes initially. Still, my presence in comments will be limited, to avoid spoiling anything for you (and also to avoid spelling out how I called certain things or got certain other things horribly wrong).
- The race section of this episode is very truncated, mostly because the jockey we’re following—Ronnie—is thrown from his horse shortly after the race begins. I do like how pissed he is about his collarbone.
- It was a surprise to me to see Patrick J. Adams pop up here, as it’s rare for actors with regular roles on other shows to take recurring parts on different series. On the other hand, Luck was filmed so long ago that it’s possible his work here predates his work on Suits. (I only mention this because he sure seems like he’ll be a recurring character; then again, everyone on this show seems like that.)
- Three episodes in, I’m still hypnotized by those opening credits, which are pretty damn great. The Massive Attack song is the perfect music for those images.
- If you missed the very sad story about how two horses died while filming this season, Sean O’Neal’s write-up is here. Here’s hoping the producers figure out a better way to treat the animals for season two.
- “I break this fucking collarbone more than I get laid.”
- “How about petting him?” (I’m already excited for the sitcom spinoff about Escalante having to hang out with the gamblers.)
- “I'll get some overalls and some earthworms.”
- “When I was home for Christmas, me and my brother got to measuring pointing fingers.”
- “Wanna do it?”