On Wednesdays I attend my “Criticism as Literary Genre” class, which constitutes the two most dishearteningly boring hours of my week. When I’m left to ponder why people don’t value reading as they once did, I gaze across the classroom table at the row of apathetic faces, and I know. This is a paper I wrote for that class!
The Impotencies of HBO’s Luck
Every man is a slave to forces beyond his control, and everywhere do they seek to become master of those forces. A gambler disavows the probabilities, the failures past, and assumes his doomed seat at the table to be dealt his hand. Risk is his currency; greater exposure to risk is his reward. The monetary gain becomes supplementary to triumph, over the other players, the cards, the schizoid agents of fortune. Here man finds his fleeting mastery over the forces of his oppression, before he is again cast back into uncertainty.
Most television show-runners are not gamblers, but David Milch is. Milch, the man behind Deadwood, NYPD Blue, and the baffling, endearing John from Cincinnati, does not bet small. Unlike his peers, he places risk at a premium, plays for impact, not longevity. His programs take place in unknown lands whose borders meet precariously at fascinating and indecipherable, lands peopled with myriad characters with faults enough to institutionalize most network television personae. His shows’ greatest strengths stand shoulder-to-shoulder with—and occasionally in the same threadbare boots as—their most damning flaws. The returns have been variable.
NYPD Blue ran for twelve years and redefined every notion of the police drama. John From Cincinnati was cancelled after one season, its sole remaining fanfare that of the spiders who cobweb unsold merchandise in HBO headquarters. With Luck, now at the midpoint of its first season (and already renewed for a second), Milch finds his position once again uncertain, but decidedly less so than in 2007, when Cincinnati premiered and, abruptly, disappeared. Over the course of those four years, David Milch’s methodology and approach to serialized storytelling did not change. What did change, drastically, was the television audience’s tolerance for narrative being conveyed in such a way. Change being one possible descriptor for the shift. Derange being quite another. There are moralistic and qualitative aspects of Luck that would have sent audiences to the hills four years ago, or, at least, sparked tendentious debate about why people continue to watch. This has not occurred, and why is that?
Impotence, in its many manifold iterations, plagues Luck. Characters are physically impotent (the paraplegic Marcus, the erectile-dysfunctional Lonnie), emotionally impotent (Dustin Hoffman’s calloused Ace, the estranged, stuttering Joey), spiritually impotent (Jerry the degenerate gambler, Leon the self-destructive jockey). As much as impotence assails these characters, what truly defines them is their utter refusal to conquer those impotencies, and this is endemic in the show’s conception, Milch’s storytelling, and, dishearteningly, to the critical faculties of its audience. Luck is an impotent beast convinced of its own prowess, and this is its undoing.
Because ultimately David Milch’s Luck is a mediocre television show in a state of profound self-denial.
Luck posits itself—as more and more television programs strive to—as high art. Esthetically, the show upholds this claim. The horseracing sequences, the preparatory moments and machinations of life at Santa Anita Park, are executed so deftly, so gorgeously, that averting one’s eyes to the apparent world is a let down, a sure sting in the gut. Every scene is infused with a squalid pulchritude: morning sun through smudged glass alights on a diner’s nonsensical tchotchkes; a horse’s body, hot from a wash, looses steam into a low shelf of mist. Visually, few, if any, shows rival Luck, and that professionalism extends to all of its technical facets. The opening title sequence, set to Massive Attack’s atmospherically foreboding “Splitting the Atom,” extends a telling emotional pall over the viewer. Shot on location in California, settings are never sets. The effect is intoxicating, but calculated, like a delicious meal eaten one too many times, so the ingredients are known, the effect expected, the reaction dictated by its antecedents instead of its source.
To indulge the horseracing metaphor to merciful death: Luck is the stallion that declares the foal his own when the foal was conceived by artificial insemination. Forgive first the metaphor; forgive then its assumption that stallions can talk.
Luck’s world is anything but impotent; it is the characters peopling the world that are, the man behind those characters who is. Milch and his Milchian creations are the two culpable parties, the impotent parties, and instead of addressing their ineffectuality, they have turned petulant, toward themselves, and toward the audience. Much of this petulance has been concealed, spangled by the show’s technical expertise, but, like blemish upon gorgeous face, once a flaw makes itself apparent, how hard it is to ignore.
First, there is the misogyny, male impotence’s most fertile pathology. Of the show’s ten primary characters, none are women. The three female characters that do appear operate in ancillary roles, to the extent that they are denied actual names. In eventuality the audience is afforded proper names for these three women, but even then the show and the characters deny these female characters an equal standing. Rosie, the talented but underutilized jockey, was for the first three episodes referred to entirely as “Exercise Girl,” and when her name did finally materialize, it was the moniker that persisted. Though introduced as Lorelei, Shauna Stoddart’s advocate for prisoner’s living conditions is swiftly dubbed “Prison Broad” in conversation. A three-episode arc detailing Hoffman’s courtship of the character culminated with Hoffman instructing his assistant to “Send that woman from the race earlier flowers.” Before delving into the most humanized of the female characters, let it be said that a fourth exists: a nameless denizen of the track with a severe case of cerebral palsy. Take that as you will, but on to Jo, the vet, whose introduction coincides with her arm being up a horse’s ass. Out of the show’s scant female reserves, her interior life is the most furnished, but solely by her relation to the most problematic of the problematic male characters.
Jo has a sexual relationship with the horse trainer, Turo Escalante, who, befitting his world, is an emotionally dismissive blowhard. But unlike the other nine leads, Escalante is not a Caucasian male. He is of Spanish descent, aptly speaks in an incomprehensible flurry of accent-lathered English, and is thus low enough on the significance hierarchy to recognize a woman as an equal, or the show’s idea of an equal, which apparently constitutes a series of begrudged concessions made in pursuit of sexual gratification. What these characters have in common, Escalante and Rosie and Lorelei and Jo, is that each of them act as enablers for the male characters. It is Escalante who trains the horses for Joey to ride and the other seven male leads to own. Rosie works out the horse for the male jockeys to ride, those same seven male leads to own. Lorelei is the Hoffman character’s path to redemption. Jo keeps the horses healthy, and acts as the show’s sole possessor of any feminine sexuality. It is a burden, and her reward is an unwanted pregnancy, fathered by the uncaring Escalante.
The producers of Luck would submit that these failings are a result of the show’s continual pursuit of verisimilitude; that few women hang around racetracks, that Spanish horse trainers speak as Escalante speaks. Counter-argument being: Luck isn’t entirely about verisimilitude; it’s about dramatized narrative’s impotent desire to achieve verisimilitude. Because this is a world where characters hold conversations completely in jargon, where modern men perform soliloquies to empty barns, where a deus ex machina earthquake averts a suicide. This is the tension that constitutes Milch’s artistic and intellectual impotencies. He does not understand the plights of women, as he does not understand the plights of minorities, and instead of engaging with these deficiencies, he chose to beautify all that surrounded this ugliness, to complicate the simple as a means to diverting the audience’s attention, and look away the audience did.
The lack of discourse surrounding these aspects of Luck speaks to concomitant anesthetizations and intellectualizations of the critical faculties of television audiences. In the wake of The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, audiences have never been more desirous for and appreciative of artful, novelistic approaches to the one-hour drama. Partly, this is a beneficial trend for consumers and producers of television. It will result in a higher quality product, but when one deals with a dearth for so long—as television audiences had until recently—what sates that need is not subject to a rightful level of criticism. As bureaucracy must ensure its failures to survive, so must this new contingent of television viewers and critics support the artfulness of their subject. Understanding this, Milch bet intelligently, but not artfully.
What Milch did with Luck was gamble with house money, and misguidedly did he place his bets. He leveraged the faith of audiences and HBO into a mediocre return, missing as much as he hit, and the losses from the misses do outweigh the gains from the hits. The show paid mind to everything but art’s true subject: humanity. It is Milch’s impotence to overcome the lack of humanity in his characters that truly gelds Luck. In the final scene of the most recent episode, Dustin Hoffman stares into the vast emptiness of his apartment and asks, “What the fuck is wrong with me?” If there is hope to be found in Luck, it lies in the episodes to come, that these characters, as well as their creator, will identify their impotencies, conquer them, find out what the fuck is wrong and fix it. Chance does not discriminate, but people can, and should.