'Luck': Welcome to the track -- try not to get lost

luck-hbo-teaser.jpg Note: This review was initially published after HBO's preview of the "Luck" pilot in December. We are re-publishing it now that the series is set to begin its regular run.

HBO's new drama "Luck" had a preview Sunday (Dec. 11) after the season finale of "Boardwalk Empire," but it won't begin its series run until Jan. 29.

We can spend the seven weeks in between figuring out who everyone is and what their roles are in and around the racetrack at Santa Anita.

As was the case with creator David Milch's last two shows for HBO, "Deadwood" and "John from Cincinnati," viewers got precious little exposition from "Luck." More than a dozen characters were introduced, and I'm hard-pressed to even tell you the names of half of them without a cheat sheet.

That confusion, though, is not necessarily a bad thing. Milch and director/exec producer Michael Mann drop us into a world with its own language and culture without an expository road map. Having us learn people's names and back stories is less important to them than giving us a sense of what this place feels like, and on that level "Luck" succeeds quite well.

Mann's direction is typically razor-sharp -- the horse-race scenes are thrilling, all super-tight close-ups and wide shots showing the beauty of a thoroughbred in full stride. But he also captures intimate moments, like that between gamblers Kevin Dunn and Jason Gedrick as they close in on a huge payday and between the grizzled trainer played by Nick Nolte and a horse he's readying. It's a fantastic-looking show.

Milch's script is also a lot more naturalistic than on either "Deadwood" or "JFC," and it fits the present-day, non-mystical world of "Luck." Milch has been a horse owner, so he knows the arcane language of the track quite well, and it shows here. But lack of exposition aside, it doesn't feel as if he's making a show just for his fellow railbirds.

Among the bigger surprises of "Luck's" pilot is that star Dustin Hoffman is only in a handful of scenes, none of which are set at the show's primary location, Santa Anita. It fits the story -- Hoffman plays a just-paroled gangster who has to use a front ( Dennis Farina) to buy a horse, and he's just getting his footing back on the outside. Hoffman's presence will certainly grow over the course of the season, but if you went in expecting the Dustin Hoffman Show, you certainly didn't get it Sunday.

"Luck" is certainly intriguing enough to bring us back in January, but we'll reserve judgment on the show as a whole until we see a few more episodes. Milch and Mann's re-creation of the horse-racing world feels accessible enough to allow the rest of us in at the moment. We hope it stays that way.

What did you think of the "Luck" pilot?
Photo/Video credit: HBO