Got Milch?: Part 1

Thanks to the deal between Amazon and HBO – which is the best move the company will ever make until it stops treating its employees like they’re in a pyramid scheme – HBO Original Series are now starting to trickle down to the screens of people like me who are too cheap to pay for both postage and a cable subscription. Earlier seasons of currently airing shows have been made available recently, but for the most part the HBO series added to Amazon Prime are drawn from the ranks of the old or forgotten. An artist whose work consistently falls into both categories is David Milch. The next couple of posts look in turn at two David Milch dramas I’ve been able to watch in their entirety through my Prime membership, starting with the unintended miniseries Luck.

Lucking.

Lucking.

Luck is an ironic title, but it was never meant to be. Unlike most serious dramas (especially those made by HBO), the characters regularly experience success and fortune instead of their lives going badly wrong. We’re continually told that drama is based on conflict, and yet Milch has managed to create a drama that is completely devoid of it. For Milch and his writers, drama is what happens every day – hence the calendar-like structuring of his oeuvre. In Milch’s hands, the blandest of small talk becomes existential poetry. No-one in a David Milch drama merely says ‘hello’ and no word or thought is ever misplaced. What we do have in Luck is the suggestion of confrontation that never comes to fruition, a theme we’ve encountered before in Milch’s work, whether it’s the much-reviled finale of Deadwood or the chase scenes in NYPD Blue offset by a moment of comic bathos.

So why is Luck an ironic title? Well, it’s because behind-the-scenes the series didn’t have enough to get to a second season. The deaths of three horses during production of the first compelled Milch and the other producers to either find an alternative (presumably digital) solution or bow out completely. I don’t wish to antagonise those who fight animal cruelty, nor suggest that there wasn’t an element of shooting oneself in the foot, which is a suitably violent analogy. I’m glad the decision was taken to end production, both for the sake of the horses who would clearly have been in further danger should it have continued and because the aesthetic of video gambling would have undone the visceral power and suspense of the stunningly directed and edited race sequences. I abhor horse racing but there is a parallel between the call to forfeit a potentially game-changing piece of drama for the safety of animals and the cruelty-free reverence for horses expressed in the episodes.

Despite premature cancellation, the nine episodes of Luck hang together rather well. By the end of the first and only season, the characters have already revealed depths untold by their initial depictions and a tragic denouement is eschewed in favour of reconciliation. It is only foreknowledge of Milch as an auteur that makes Luck seem like such a loss. The three seasons of Deadwood are as unceasingly brilliant as any single piece of art has been. NYPD Blue went off the boil the second Milch left the series after eight years – and I mean that quite literally. Milch can not only create, he can sustain, but the artist has been denied his canvas. Luck was also the perfect middleman between Milch’s more obtuse work like the arcane John from Cincinnati and the modern-times Elizabethan theatre of NYPD Blue. Luck could have filled the vacuum in our culture left by Deadwood.

luck 2

Lucky actors!

It’s refreshing – even for Milch – that the race track is just a race track and not some loaded allegory. Luck is as profound as any Shakespeare about human vice and folly, and yet as bound to the flow of daily life as a soap opera. If you wish to see it metaphorically, and not simply as a centre of dramatic and thematic unity, then it functions as a retirement home for character actors, albeit an indiscriminate one that allows movie stars to mingle with TV movie stars. Even though the actors are veterans, the material compels them to learn about themselves as performers, and how to resist their worst urges towards melodrama and synthetic gesture. I’m sure they rarely find dialogue of the kind of purity that it can only be spoken aloud. It’s not naturalism as such, but an artifice that finds a rhythm of speech mirroring our own.

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