tvdinnerluck.JPG
Sarah Anne Lloyd, 2011.

Last week, TV Dinner huddled up for warmth in the icy television oblivion of the holiday season with a thick gaudy

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The Lucky Diner's Chicken and HBO's Luck Are Two Sure Bets

tvdinnerluck.JPG
Sarah Anne Lloyd, 2011.

Last week, TV Dinner huddled up for warmth in the icy television oblivion of the holiday season with a thick gaudy blanket of indolent listmaking. With that out of the way, things seemed pretty grim in terms of coming up with any other relevant distractions, and the column was teetering dangerously close to actually having to cover last night's A Michael Bublé Christmas.

However, just in the nick of time, as if in penance for cancelling critical darlings Bored to Death and Hung earlier this week, HBO decided to throw us a warm parting shot in the form of an early premiere for its new David Milch-helmed horseracing drama, Luck, over a month before the season officially begins on January 29th. On account of Emerald Downs not being the first place that comes to mind when it comes to delicious, accessible take-out, as well as my insufferable need to make the absolute least thoughtful puns on this website, Luck will be paired with Belltown greasy spoon, The Lucky Diner.

The Cuisine: The Lucky Diner is rather anomalous when it comes to the type of restaurant usually known for terrifyingly high cholesterol levels, loads of (usually abrasive) character and suspect attention to health code, in that Lucky seems notably more sterile and glossy than a lot of its Belltown neighbors.

I will also admit I'm going into this review biased: the restaurant already turned me off with an egregious lack of chicken fried steak made even more heretical by a bland pork substitute. You might as well replace the bacon with strips of ground beef, while you're in the neighborhood. That said, the idea of getting Beer Can Chicken to go not only seemed like an awesome novelty, but fit Luck's downtrodden, mostly obese spectrum of particularly depressing Americana.

Glum parallels aside, Lucky Diner's entree has to offer what might just be one of the least dry pieces of chicken ever served at any place that has non-ironically identified itself as a diner since the invention of the word. The bird's unapologetically trashy marinade breathes life into the skin's spartan seasoning, as if to mock the accompanying gravy.

The chicken comes with two sides, but you're definitely going to want to make at least half of that into Lucky's Home Fries, which fit naturally alongside the scrappiness of the beer chicken: an all-business heap of grilled onions and soggy potatoes that would probably be better off never served before 2 AM.

The Entertainment: David Milch has a way with gamblers. While he gained early success as a co-creator of NYPD Blue, the ABC cop drama that paved the way for countless episodes of things where police officers throw chairs across the room in frustration, Milch's first major solo success came in creating the anti-western character drama Deadwood. The HBO cult hit infused the tense, lawless world of the 1870s frontier with a healthy dose of Shakespeare -- both in elaborate, ornate monologues reflecting on the poetry of savagery and a whole lot of cast member deaths that are painstakingly structured to stick with you, rather than just provide a sensational blip in a plodding story. Indeed, the first truly impactful death of the show was dramatizing Wild Bill Hickok's legendary Dead Man's Hand, when the charismatic showman was gunned down mid-Poker game.

His less-acclaimed but still admirable second effort, John from Cincinnati, continued the daredevil trend by following a dysfunctional family dynasty of pro surfers, brought to ruin by an insatiable hunger for risk. Milch specializes in characters who are used to betting it all for comparatively little, which puts him right at home at his newest show Luck's vividly shady racetrack.

If there's another area in which Milch clearly excels, it's placing his audience into environments that have been historically considered unsophisticated and lower class, then utterly drowning them with fast-paced dialogue rich with a thoroughly arcane vocabulary unique to the setting. In Deadwood, it was the profanity-glazed shop talk of mine prospectors, prostitutes and con men that frequently dipped into an almost Shakespearean gravitas. With John From Cincinnati, it was impenetratable surfer lingo laid on top of the endlessly bizarre, possibly extra-terrestrial titular character's cryptic attempts at communication.

So anyone remotely familiar with the races knows that Milch has come upon another gold mine for his proven strengths: insider jargon, labyrinthine explanations of pick 6 entries and even brief mentions of racehorse genealogy pepper Luck's very first episode. Fortunately, the show is usually careful to have at least one bystander befuddled enough to let the audience in on an explanation.

It would appear the deck was stacked for fans of David Milch, but Luck also knows how to rake in a wider appeal out of a star-studded cast impressive by even HBO's standards. Dustin Hoffman fills the shoes of "Ace" Bernstein, a tantalizingly surly central character who positively seethed his way through the pilot episode, artfully shaking off the cobwebs of a long prison sentence before properly getting into the heart of his quest for vengeance. Hoffman's daunting presence aside, the show isn't called Ace with good reason (besides being one of the only things harder to Google than "Luck"), and the packed ensemble drama is balanced out with drivers (Dennis Farina, Get Shorty), doctors (Jill Hennessy, Crossing Jordan), gangsters (Michael Gambon, the second Dumbledore) and haggard old men (Nick Nolte, haggard old man).

It's difficult to see the show's budget being able to keep Hoffman, Nolte, Hennessy, Gambon and Farina past one of HBO's notoriously character-lethal season finales (particularly with so many good shows getting the axe as of late), but the allure of this tremendous cast bouncing off of each other every Sunday is unmistakable -- even if you need a mural-sized diagram to keep everything together.

The Pairing: While The Lucky Diner managed to lurch out of the gate, the promising beginning of HBO's Luck probably deserves... not to have a hackneyed horseracing metaphor made about it. Still, Luck might benefit here from the element of only having a short, tease-filled hour worth of potential flaws exposed to the world, while Lucky Diner has been running steady for about a half a year now. Either way, both properties have shown flashes of charming, utilitarian quality, beit with an engrossing, detailed playground full of intriguing characters or a chicken with a can of beer up its ass.

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