With horse-racing drama Luck’s second season canceled on account of so-many-horses-dying, the news has, sadly, overwhelmed one of the more interesting debates about the show: Is the fact Luck is so hard to understand just part of its charm, or something that harms the show by making it less accessible?
I’d argue both.
Most television shows you can drop in randomly and have a pretty good idea what’s happening. You can fold laundry or wash dishes or yell at the kids while watching. It’s part of the appeal of the medium, and part of the reason so many showrunners strive to repeat, and dramatically underline, the important points.
Luck, to say the least, is not that way.
To start, it takes place on a horsetrack and the neighboring casino. And where most shows run from the jargon and minutia such a setting brings, or introduce a girlfriend/new guy/ journalist as an excuse to explain things to, Luck rarely does. Instead it runs headlong into the mess and complication and foreign vocabulary of the world. If you want to try to follow along, fine. It has a story to get to tellin’ either way.
(The conversation I most easily understand, insanely, was the one about derivatives.)
Compound that with the fact that it’s written by David Milch, the mind behind Deadwood (first on the but-have-you-seen? rebuttal list to any best-TV-show-ever claim.) Milch’s unique voice for lyrical dialogue, a profane and tangled eloquence melding Shakespeare and Mamet.
And on top of that, add at least six characters with speech tics – occasionally-thick Irish, Asian, South American, English accents, a character who stutters, and another who speaks like Nick Nolte.
Immediately, this inaccessibility has the simple effect of making the world seem instantaneously authentic. These people aren’t talking to the TV audience at home. They’re talking to each other. The show feels voyeuristic in all the best ways.
And the fact that the plot is hard to understand, underscores how much Luck is intended to be about character, about atmosphere and emotion, instead of plot development.
Of shows I’ve seen, only The Wire came as close as to simulating the experience of those classic novels where it takes about 300 pages reading about the full breadth of characters and confusing plots to actually understanding what’s happening. But like in The Wire, those novels (and Luck) eventually snap into focus. And when they do you feel you understand the characters better than in nearly any other novel.
But at the same time, there’s a lot lost in Luck’s incoherence. The casual viewer misses so much. It’s tricky to understand what’s at stake at any given moment, and when we don’t understand that, we can’t be as engaged in the outcome of a horse race, business deal, or poker hand as the characters. Great writing, at its core, is about communication.
Luck would never want to sacrifice authenticity for clarity, but it doesn’t have to. The best shows can find clever ways to communicate the plot development and theme without resorting to lazy exposition. Breaking Bad did it by picking relatively clear, simple plot developments, and making the reaction of the characters and the subtlety of the moral development the reason for the show’s greatness.
The Wire did it through a chorus-like repetition of phrases like “jukin' the stats” and “it’s all in the game.”
It can be done. And I hope that, on Milch’s next great project, he takes a stab at it.