Sunday, February 26, 2012

Luck 1-03

Luck is a self-consciously slow series.  Its format, which examines an eventful week at a racetrack one day at a time, parcels out events at a drip [1].  So, when in this episode we learn that Walter's horse is going to race in two days, we realize that it will be in one or two weeks of our time -- at the midpoint of the season.  This isn't an aesthetic criticism -- in fact, I think it's a deliberate, quite well thought-out choice.  The characters also seem to embody this slowness in their aged bodies, with the long, worn-out looks of Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte telling the story of a long, glacial life that's mostly passed.  The same can be said of the desperate, middle-aged characters that hang around the tracks -- there's a reason that Marcus, the brains of the gambling quartet, is personally immobile, travels around in a slow electric scooter, and is constantly advising caution to his overly excited friends.  And all of this is, of course, a brilliant contrast to the subject that all these characters are fixated on: horse racing, an activity that consists of short, desperate bursts of speed.

The series' third episode (frustratingly unnamed except for the generic "Episode Three") brings this into focus by bringing Ace into contact with a character who seems to go against everything he stands for.  Nathan Israel, a young businessman working on one of his mysterious front companies is the opposite of the patient, calculating Ace, tactlessly trying to acquire everything at once, from money to knowledge.  His crime is not really anything he says or does, but rather his assumption is a finite, knowable place, one that he in his youth has already complete knowledge of.  Ace's main objection is that he hasn't had the slow life experience necessary to know anything: "Never lived a day in his life, gonna tell me why I did something".  Even his business area, derivatives, suggests a kind of recklessness and a focus on futurity.

In another series his impatience to get right to the point might make him a hip go-getter, but here it makes him something of a fool.  Throughout the episode I kept expecting Nathan to meet a grisly end, the kind of sacrifice of a foolish character that you see often early in HBO shows, both to assert the show's own willingness to cross puritanical boundaries (although at this point those boundaries are well-trodden) and as a kind of violent moral fable.  In a show like Boardwalk Empire or Sons of Anarchy, Nathan wouldn't survive the episode.  But creator David Milch, having already gone down that route in the premiere of Deadwood, knows what audience expectations are and subverts them quite considerably -- Nathan not only survives the episode, but ends up with a major opportunity, one that the more demure lackeys didn't get.  Of course, to seize that opportunity he's tasked with observing everything around him -- living slowly.

That same frustrating dynamic -- the slowness of life and the enticing attraction of speed -- is perhaps what drives gambling addict Jerry.  What comes across most in the gambling sequences, moreso than the importance of the titular luck, is how quickly fortunes can be won and lost.  In the first episode these men win more money than they would ever have at one time if they dedicated themselves to "normal" jobs, and this is portrayed as a cinematic, almost heroic triumph -- the get-rich-quick moment everyone dreams of, complete with soaring music.  It's a moment that feels so good it partly explains why Jerry keeps going to the casino and losing thousands of dollars each night.  When the stakes are so titanic, when everything happens so fast, there's a natural drama that neither characters nor audience can resist.

Of the foursome of gamblers Jerry's the most "TV-looking" one, resembling a conventional hero instead of the lowlifes he hangs out with, but he's actually the most troubled.  Unlike the other three, he has no plans for how to spend his windfall -- he just takes it right to the casino.  The conventional looks of Jason Gedrick create a strange dynamic.  We start automatically thinking of him as the hero, we start wanting to see him silence the jackass across the table from him -- in other words, we fall into the same narrative that Jerry himself falls into, which allows him to ignore the insanity of what he's doing.

At the same time, this episode lets us see a more positive side of Jerry.  He sets out to achieve the goal that Renzo, attempting the honest methods, couldn't in the last episode -- buying the horse they want.  Jerry's persistence in this matter, and his willingness to throw good money after bad, are the traits that enable his gambling addiction -- and yet here they get him what he wants quickly, and they do seem like a kind of heroism.  It suggests that it's not as simple as Jerry being a bad person, or a good person with a flaw -- the bad elements and the good are inverted sides of the same traits.  It's possible to sense in this a commentary on our ideas of a great narrative, and how poisonous they can be to everyday life.

The larger metaphor of the racetrack also sustains this ambivalence.  In every episode (at least thus far) we have a horse race as the centrepiece, a piece of cinematic excitement complete with heroic personal narratives.  But even as it pulls us in with the glory of victory, Luck lets us know the costs that the track imposes on everyone involved.  That's most dramatically illustrated in this episode's abbreviated race, where the veteran jockey Ronnie is thrown from his horse in mid-race, breaking a collarbone that's apparently been injured many times before. The long shot of Ronnie tumbling away from the retreating camera, being left behind by the callousness of the race (and, it's implied, the joy we take from it) tells the whole story -- well, that and the wince-inducing crack we hear as he tumbles.

What starts to emerge in this episode is the tight regulation of the bodies of the jockeys, who have an intensified form of biopower imposed upon them by both the sport itself and people like stuttering but menacing manager Joey.  Leon, Joey's hot young jockey, is seen in this episode collapsing in a sauna during his attempt to make weight through starving himself.  Once again the horses, the muscular beasts that the camera revels in, serve as an interesting contrast here -- they are all massive muscle, cared for exquisitely by trainers like Escalante, who would never dream of being as rude to his horses as he is to humans.  The jockeys, meanwhile, are forced to be almost nothing, a mere appendage of the horse, and are constantly the subject of verbal abuse.

(Then again, as we see in the first episode -- and in the filming process of Luck, apparently -- horse life is cheap.  They're celebrated as long as they're useful, and then discarded.  Maybe they're more like the jockeys than I thought.)

All of this is only scratching the surface of what happens in this episode.  I haven't really touched on the race plans of Walter and Rosie, probably the two least corrupt characters in the show, or on the strange relationship between Escalante and Jo.  Like many of the great HBO dramas of the past, it's not just an ensemble drama, but a sociological one -- what Milch is trying to capture here is not a particular character or group of characters, but a social group -- in this case, the strange and fading subculture that loiters around one dying racetrack.

This kind of sociological approach is typical of the modern cable prestige drama, especially those of HBO -- shows like Deadwood, The Wire and Rome involved a continually broadening frame, trying to capture as much as the world in question as possible.  This is one type of story that television tells very well, better than film or your average novel[2], if only due to the sheer amount of time a TV series has to work with -- and the way it can spread that time over months and years in the lives of the viewers, coming to seem like a separate world with its own continuity.  The story that's being told is then not about the arcs of any of the individual characters, but rather the ways in which the track draws together or breaks apart these characters as a community.

The way that Luck differs from the standard HBO show, however, when it comes to genre.  Most of its predecessors have fallen roughly into either the crime (The Sopranos, The Wire) or the historical (Deadwood, Game of Thrones[3]) genres.  Luck certainly has toes in both of these genres, with the involvement of gangster Ace and the setting of a rather backward-seeming part of the present day, and incorporates other ones like the sports drama.  But while it draws on a number of generic traditions, it's its own beast.  All comparisons to Milch's previous work aside, it's hard to think of a TV show past or present that's quite like Luck, and that's exciting.

In the end, no matter how far-ranging the show gets, it always comes back to Ace and Gus.  Thus far, every episode has ended with the two talking each other to sleep.  They spend some more time complaining about Nathan, but this time they seem like less badass old men and more envious, slowly dying creatures.  The vulnerability of these final sequences are inevitably a contrast to all of Ace's scheming and posturing throughout the day.  Ace goes to sleep, promising himself to some charitable endeavours tomorrow, while Gus is consumed with an image drastically different from his still, fading-to-sleep form: their horse, hazy and in slow motion, caught between its natural speed and Gus's imposed slowness.  In the episode's final shot, it becomes apparent that this contradiction can't last.

Next week: "The kitchen, it's dangerous."

[1]This one-day-per-episode format has been used before in television -- in Milch's Deadwood, obviously, but also in shows like Twin Peaks.  In a way this hearkens all the way back to classical theatre, where it was taken as an aesthetic rule that the narrative time of a play could last no longer than one day, and take place within a single general location.  While this is obviously rather restrictive for a complete story, the day matches up to the episode nicely as an unit of time -- it's in some way complete and distinct, separate from the next, but it also belongs to an ongoing continuity.  It's weird how the old ideas never really die.

[2]TV is certainly not the only medium that can, or has, taken this sociological view.  Long novels or other forms of serialized storytelling can do it -- think War and Peace or Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar comics, respectively.  Still, TV is unique in being able to do it in a really commercially successful and well-developed way.

[3]Game of Thrones doesn't take place in an actual historical setting, but it belongs to basically the same genre as shows like Rome or The Borgias.

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