Few people have written as well about the track as Bill Barich, whose first book, "Laughing in the Hills," became an instant classic, mainly because it was about the people of the track rather than the horses.
As far as I know, Barich has never written an episode of television before this week's "Luck," but, for all the reasons that Barich came out of the gate so quickly with "Laughing," he’s placed the series right on pace with his maiden ride. A canny hire, for sure.
Journalists have always done well in television – no strangers, after all, to writing under pressure and on deadline. Good journalists are attuned to dialogue, know how to structure a story, but, most of all, are adept at ferreting out character, which, in the end, is what TV is really about.
The characters really come out to play in Barich’s episode. All the menace that Gary Lionelli’s music has been promising suddenly comes to the fore. This is the first episode in which Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) hasn’t lost his temper – and it’s in the beautifully written and performed scene in which Bernstein keeps things under control (barely) that his character finally gains power.
We may know that the young man (Patrick J. Adams) with whom Bernstein toys is no match for him, but we don’t know just how Bernstein is going to play this hand. The very fact that he is not a worthy adversary makes us squirm – we’re waiting to see if Bernstein is someone who enjoys exercising his power over the weak or has found an insight that others lack.
Similarly, the trainer Escalante sudden starts to have an agenda of his own, one that we don’t yet understand but that Barich clearly does. When Jason Gedrick’s Jerry walks into his barn, he’s a fly in the spider’s web. He’s a guy who thinks he’s making a very smart wager who is about to be suckered. (Something we learn tangentially, via vet Jill Hennessy.)
Best of all, there’s a new, mysterious coke-snorting character, played by W. Earl Brown, who does nothing but buy a pint of Cutty. It’s one of those great television novelistic moments, when we know that this guy is going to return and cause some major upset, but we don’t know when (it could be weeks) or how.
That scene works because of what we don’t know. Indeed, Barich has rebalanced the series to a place where the powerful characters are truly powerful by withholding information rather than giving it. We are privy to what the gambling quartet knows, what the vet knows, what the hapless kid from the boardroom knows.
We are not privy to what the two major players – Hoffman and Ortiz – have up their sleeves. Everything in the writing says that they have something there (and the actors are telling us the same). We fear for the victims just as we know we’ll come back to find out what the secret is.
Walter Smith, the trainer played by Nick Nolte who has been such a productive presence until now, is not so reticent. We know just what he wants (would-be jockey Rosie back riding for him) and, as a result, he is less interesting than he’s been to date. The subpot is nearly sentimental.
The first season of almost any television series is almost always a revelation – sometimes more to the writers than the audience. Andre Braugher grabbed "Homicide" by the throat and dragged the series after him; President Bartlett refused to be a subsidiary character in "West Wing," demoting Sam Seaborn in the process.
Barich has found the power (and the depth and nuance) in the players "Luck" needs to succeed. It’s suddenly become a much more interesting day at the races.