There's an old W.C. Fields movie where he's playing poker with a brand-new sucker, who asks, "Is this a game of chance?" Fields assures him, "Not the way I play it." A true American motto, and it could be the epigraph for HBO's Luck. The gamblers and gangsters who play the ponies at the Santa Anita racetrack are hustling for redemption at the hands of fate. They believe they have a surefire system to beat the odds, even if they have to cheat a little. And when they lose, which they always do? Tomorrow's another race. As one of the hard-boiled railbirds says, after a tough break, "Yeah, well, déjà fuckin' vu."
Luck is the brilliant creation of David Milch, who oversaw one of HBO's all-time most intense dramas, the Wild West story Deadwood. (And also one of its most high-profile fiascoes, John From Cincinnati – you remember, the Luke Perry surfer-Jesus thing.) Luck is like a Deadwood version of Stanley Kubrick's classic noir The Killing: lots of sweaty guys who are drawn to the horses because they've got just a little bit of larceny in them.
The racetrack remains one of America's favorite metaphors for itself, despite the fact that in terms of actual popularity, horse racing hovers somewhere between jai alai and air hockey. We might not hang out at the OTB, but we love to fantasize about all the grifts that go with playing the ponies. It appeals to our most craven national fantasy, where picking a winner out of the blue solves all our problems. No matter how many times we get burned, we keep hoping this time it's anyone's race. And if we get burned again, well, déjà fuckin' vu.
Luck revels in the allure of the sleazy hoods who populate the track. There's Dustin Hoffman as a stoic gangster just out of prison, with Dennis Farina as his loyal driver. Nick Nolte and John Ortiz play scrappy trainers angling for their own piece of the pie. And Jason Gedrick is the roughed-up pretty-boy gambler who looks like he's just wandered in from the set of Entourage: The Blowing Guys in Bus Stations Years.
You don't have to know anything about horses to get obsessed with Luck. Like Deadwood, Luck conjures an alternate world, with its own laws and lingo. It's full of tough guys talking shit – like the great scene when a group of gamblers, after a major loss, start bickering about the Three Stooges. These dudes are so addicted to the rush they can't stop talking about their lives in gamblers' terms – even when they're having sex. After a couple of poker players share simultaneous orgasms, the guy whispers, "We call that split pot."
The only time the scheming stops is the actual horse races, and each episode seems to pause for the event – it's a brief moment of innocence. You notice the golden afternoon sunlight, the palm trees, the joy of the horses. Even the most jaded railbirds get a little serene gazing at the ponies, saying things like, "Ya look at this bitch run." Then, in seconds, the race is over and the scams are back on. And sometimes the pretty horses end up getting shot.
Dustin Hoffman is amazing – he's just one key figure in this ensemble cast, but he's magnetic even in the stiff way he holds his body. You can tell this is an impatient man who had to learn behind bars how to wait. Now he's plotting some righteous payback on his ex-partners who made him take the fall. As Ace Bernstein, he wipes the floor with Robert De Niro's Ace Rothstein from Casino. Even his tiniest gestures are thrilling to watch, like when he gets in his car and hears the perky GPS voice say, "Ready to navigate!" Hoffman just mutters, "Yeah, you do your job, I'll do mine."
There's no Boardwalk Empire-style glitz: These are not beautiful losers. But the whole cast is an all-star team of grizzled character actors. Best in show: Kevin Dunn, one of my favorite professional bad guys. (Anyone who can play J. Edgar Hoover and Brian Wilson's abusive dad is some kind of baller.) Here he's a greasy wheelchair-bound lowlife betting away his disability checks. After one of his partners screws up, he says, "I'm not passing judgment, but this makes you the story's asshole. And now you wanting to complain puts the icing on the asshole cake." That sums up the greatness of Luck: It's an asshole cake with plenty of icing.
This story is from the February 2nd, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.