Once, while debating the importance (or lack thereof) of industry awards during a Q&A, David Milch was corrected when he said that his previous hit, Deadwood, had been overlooked. Not so. Actor Ian McShane had won for his unforgettable portrayal of Al Swearangen, a cunning and ruthless saloon owner. Milch quickly replied: "True, but that was just a Golden Globe. And last I heard; he is not a writer."
Throughout his career, Milch has set a high standard of realism and authenticity with his television work. In 1993, when NYPD Blue premiered, people called it "over the top". I mean, c'mon -- there is no way that cops actually beat accused criminals behind closed doors in order to elicit confessions. Right? The clear line between the good guys and the bad guys blurred. Working with producer Bill Clark, a former New York cop, gave Milch and his co-creator Steven Bochco insights into the lives and minds of men and women who never candidly speak to writers.
What was discovered should not have surprised anyone. Every cop -- like every person -- is flawed and prone to making mistakes or simply allowing his/her decisions to be erroneously governed by emotion. He neither forgave nor condoned their actions. He simply showed them to us. Milch (who went on to create the brilliant Deadwood and the under-watched John from Cincinnati) humanized his characters in ways that most writer/producers simply do not.
On paper, David Milch appears rather intimidating. Just a glance at his Wikipedia bio would shame anyone's lazy existence. Forget his career; his time in college is remarkable by itself. He graduated from Yale, first in a class that included former Presidential nominee John Kerry. The head of his fraternity was former President George W. Bush, whom Milch joyfully described as "a million laughs". Suddenly, the story of my post-Grad summer in Edmonton sounds rather dull. (It was.)
After being hired as writer on Hill Street Blues in 1982, he immediately won an Emmy for the first television script he ever wrote. However, he was already secretly fighting with drug and alcohol problems that continued long into his television career. Despite eventually defeating these demons, Milch would later suffer a massive heart attack on the set of NYPD Blue, a show he is credited with writing over 250 episodes. A fighter to the end, once again Milch recovered and in the last ten years went on to create the critically-acclaimed Deadwood and John from Cincinnati for HBO.
His latest work, Luck (HBO), follows a wildly diverse group of people whose lives intersect at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Los Angeles. Having seen only a few episodes, any attempt at a plot summary would be impossible. (Also, Luck is so damn good; I could never bring my self to pull a spoiler.) The show's structure seems closer to that of a Robert Altman film than an hour long drama. We don't get any chaotic car chases or terse Mexican stand offs. Instead, we drift around -- bit by bit -- catching snapshots of life at the track. To put it blankly, Milch is in no hurry.
The Pilot episode slowly eases us into this world. Obviously, stars like Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, and Nick Nolte (who deserves an Emmy) are fantastic, but much of their scenes thus far feel like set up for what comes later. Hoffman plays an aging gangster, freshly released from jail after unjustly being forced to take a rap for an associate, played by Michael Gambon. Hoffman's unspoken plans of revenge somehow involve the race track, but the details remain fuzzy.
Another key figure, Tuco Escalante (played pitch perfectly by John Ortiz), is the track's cool-as-ice senior horse trainer, whose own motives seem to reach beyond simply caring for his animals. Neither Hoffman nor Ortiz come right out and says: "Okay, here's what I'm thinking..." Instead of treating the audience like children, Milch forces us to pay close attention. We quickly realize that every moment matters. Casual viewers who freely walk away from their set to get a mid-show snack will undoubtedly be missing something important. Luck rewards those viewers who pay close attention.
But marquee names like Nolte and Hoffman are just one side of the dice. The breakout stars are the degenerate gamblers who gather at Santa Anita to watch the death (and subsequent re-birth) of the American dream each day. Kevin Dunn and Jason Gedrick's bet-on-anything losers immediately feel real. These are lived-in people, warts and all. And their behavior shows a true understanding of the world they inhabit. Note how (at first) after a big win, Dunn's wheelchair-bound Marcus does not overly celebrate or call attention to himself. Not until after the money is deep in his pocket is that notion even considered. But things change...
What happens if these losers get a tip that could potentially change their lives? Will they blow it? As they bet, I could feel the suspense that those characters felt -- eyes steady, shoulders clenched, breath held, desperate for the outcome. I want these guys to succeed. I want them to make it out of that track with money in their wallets. The tragedy comes not when they lose but when they win. The thrill of victory is fleeting and temporary, and as the cash burns holes in their pockets, compulsion rears its ugly head. At night, the track is closed. The poker table, on the other hand, is always open.
Unlike his experience with NYPD Blue, they needed no Bill Clark on set for creative advisement. In 1992, Milch entered his first horse, 'Gilded Time', a Thoroughbred, in the world renowned Breeder's Cup, the second most attended stake race in the world behind the Kentucky Derby. At the time, Milch was desperate for money and as a result, was in the early phases of writing a screenplay for Disney with Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz attached to star. (This film would later be made with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Bad Boys.) Thankfully, that version of the screenplay was never completed by (or credited to) Milch, as the race had ended with 'Gilded Time' placing first. Why work for Disney when you own a half-million dollar racehorse? Milch has lived in this world for years and when you watch Luck, you can feel that. Every moment drips with nuance and painstaking detail.
After the first episode was previewed in December, the show was hastily renewed for a second season by HBO. This is wonderful news, considering that Milch's two previous collaborations with the cable network ended with premature cancellation. Perhaps this time around, he will get to see the project to its completion. In the meantime, I cannot wait for each new episode. David Milch's Luck has opened a window into an unexplored yet fascinating world. I just hope that window stays open, as it is quickly becoming my favorite thing on TV.
Luck airs Sunday nights on HBO and HBO Canada.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.