Luck has winning formula
LUCK (Sky Atlantic, Sat) HOMELAND (Ch4, Sun) UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (BBC1, Sun) CELEBRITY FAMILY FORTUNES (TV3, Sat)
"WILL someone please tell me what's going on?" shouts Ian Hart's character in the first episode of Sky Atlantic's new HBO racetrack drama Luck. Me too, please, because I have only the vaguest idea what's going on and the dialogue, when you can make out what's being said, is often impenetrable.
Dustin Hoffman, in his first major television role, is Chester 'Ace' Bernstein, a gangster fresh out of prison and bent on some kind of revenge. His best buddy, as well as the front for a racehorse Ace owns, is Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), while the trainer is a virtually incomprehensible Peruvian called Turo Escalante (John Ortiz).
Just as hard to understand is Nick Nolte, growling like a wounded grizzly as Walter Smith, another trainer. Hart, meanwhile, is one of four colourful gamblers whose complex bet has just bagged them nearly $2.7m.
How these characters will fit together is difficult to guess yet and if you don't know your horseracing jargon, Luck's creator David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) and director Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Heat) are making no concessions.
Yet despite the frustrations of this opener, which was mostly about introducing characters and setting the scene, Luck reeks of quality in everything from the performances (Hoffman hasn't been this good in years) to the superb photography.
Horseracing is as notoriously difficult to convincingly recreate on screen as football, but the ones in Luck are electrifying and look bruisingly realistic. I'm betting on a slow-starting winner.
Homeland is on RTE2 on Friday nights, which means I haven't been able to review it. If you've been watching, you won't need me to tell you it's brilliant. I actually envy viewers coming to it for the first time on Channel 4.
Damian Lewis is Sgt Nicholas Brody, a US marine who's rescued after eight years in captivity and returns to America a pre-packaged hero -- although readjusting to life with a wife who believed him dead (and has been in a relationship with his best friend) is proving difficult. Claire Danes is Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA agent convinced that Brody has been "turned" by al-Qaeda. Both are superb.
Though it's been likened to the enjoyable but silly 24, with which it shares production talent, Homeland is infinitely better. Every episode is palm-sweatingly tense and every plot twist gnawingly plausible. The best drama of the year by several furlongs.
With all this American quality sloshing about, the revived -- or should that be disinterred -- Upstairs Downstairs is a posh pipsqueak of a thing, choking on cliches.
Upstairs is ruled by Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), who seems to be the only person in England convinced Neville Chamberlain is making a mistake appeasing Hitler, and his spouse Lady Agnes (an utterly dire Keeley Hawes), back home with a new baby after the world's most cosmetic C-section.
Downstairs is led by camp butler Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), who couldn't mince more if he was a butcher and is exposed as a conscientious objector in the previous war. Already eclipsed by Downtown Abbey, it's a mildewed monument to why British TV drama is being beaten senseless by America.
You'd need to be clumsy to drop and break Family Fortunes, the most popular TV gameshow in the world. TV3's new celebrity version almost manages it.
The format and the production are fine; the main problem is the flat script delivered by Alan Hughes, who lacks the lightness of touch Vernon Kay brings to the ITV one -- and a Martin King might have brought to this one -- and insists on addressing the contestants like a pre-school teacher. And Amanda Brunker as an opening guest didn't exactly inspire confidence.
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