Running Out of ‘Luck’

By Rob Patterson

I often say how I like to be proven wrong, and I mean it … most of the time. But sometimes being wrong is just a bummer.

Such is the case with my tout of the HBO series Luck in my picks column a few issues back. My first read on it was as a potential landmark for the network to stand proudly aside such previous quality TV monuments as The Sopranos and The Wire.

Boy was I wrong. HBO canceled the series halfway through its first season. One oft-cited reason is that three horses involved in the production of the show about the thoroughbred horseracing world died. That may have been a factor, but in the end I suspect it was simply low ratings.

On paper it looked like a sure bet: Top stars like Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in the cast. A view inside the shadowy world behind the grandstand of what can be an exciting sport. A very cinematic visual style and feel that goes beyond the usual TV fare.

But in the ratings race Luck turned out to be a nag. And I shall never know if given the time if the series would have turned out to be the classic I felt it could be.

What this tells me is that the game in what I feel has become the golden age of quality TV has changed. With Showtime stepping up to rival HBO with original series and other cable channels creating new shows, the race is tougher and the stakes are higher.

Plus, I believe, horseracing may just not have the wide appeal as a sport that matches how much I enjoy it. Gambling may be hugely popular as a pastime, but it’s casino card and dice games and slot machines that the public enjoys most. Which is in fact a thread of the plot established in Luck – how Hoffman’s character “Ace” Bernstein had struck a deal with an Indian tribe to bring casino gaming to a California race track. And gambling is a factor in some serious social problems (although while reporting a story on Native American casino construction projects for a trade magazine a Native American told me how it is also “the new buffalo” for tribes that have suffered far too long).

My enjoyment of racing, of playing money on the ponies – the only gambling I ever really pursue – emanates from my love of horses. I come from an equestrian family and have ridden since the age of six. Among my parents and three siblings, I’m (as yet) the only one who has never owned a horse.

The obvious politically correct question is how I can really love horses as well as a sport that treats them so brutally. There’s no easy answer for that. I am well aware that thoroughbreds are raced far too young while their bodies and bones are still growing and maturing. And raced too hard and when they are strained and already injured and the risk of injuries that lead to them being “put down” as the euphemism for killing them goes.

Back in the stables, horseracing is not a pretty world. I saw similar abuses working as a groom on the horse show circuit as a teen. That’s one of the things that Luck captured well. And I’m disappointed I’ll never find out how that plot thread played out.

But I’m surprised that PETA hasn’t been picketing racetracks even if I contend that people who train and ride horses for sport and do abuse them also love them. That’s another thing Luck was showing in its short run: A love for horses.

I will also make the case for the anthropomorphic theory that horses love to run. My father owned a retired thoroughbred racehorse that had won a few races at a small track that had been retrained as a hunter. One day I took his horse out for a ride, and on a long straight dirt road got up into galloping position, let loose the reins, give him a kick and rode him at full out speed. Let me tell you: There are few comparable thrills I’ve experienced in my life.

That’s something else Luck gave the TV viewer a taste of, as well as the thrill of having the horse you bet on rounding the far turn and breaking out into the lead. I know that to like horseracing is to also have to ignore the bad and dark sides of the sport and how the horses are mistreated. But as another character on an HBO series, Meadow Soprano, once said: “Sometimes we are all hypocrites.”

Populist Picks

Three recent films I enjoyed prove that the art of cinema still survives in an era when movies have largely become more about entertainment than telling stories, and are fine choices for an evening’s entertainment at home.

J. Edgar – No government figure of the 20th Century cast a longer-lasting shadow than controversial FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover over his nearly four decades heading the law-enforcement agency. And shadows form the cinematographic mood for director Clint Eastwood’s look at his life and career. Though this biopic got a mixed reception from critics, I found it compelling as a movie in both its tone and structure, which utilizes one of the advantages of filmmaking in that it needn’t follow a linear structure. Its darkness befits a figure whose private life and government service were suffused with ambiguity and secrets, and Leoardo DiCaprio proves his acting chops with a dead-on portrayal of a man who may still remain a mystery at the movie’s end, but perhaps that’s the salient point of the tale.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — There is no finer writer then John LeCarré in the spy genre, and this rendering of his story about the search for a highly placed Soviet mole in British Intelligence captures the tone of Le Carré’s writing with deft skill. It’s a complex story that demands attention, and, like J. Edgar, is suffused with shadows and ambiguity as well. Its box office and critical success shows that there is still an audience for movies that play like literature.

The Descendants – Is George Clooney today’s best cinematic stand-in for the modern American man? This is yet another and arguably the best argument for that, telling a tale of family troubles and struggles with humor and panache to match the drama. Even with death and betrayal as its thematic thread, the film plays in an utterly delightful way that is both entertaining and life affirming. It reminds us how even when caught within life’s travails there’s an upbeat side to most everything.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2012

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