The star of FX's new half-hour show Lucky is pretty lucky himself. Things are looking up for actor John Corbett -- now that he's wandered out of fluffy romantic-lead land and into the wilds of dark and depraved comedy.
Corbett started strong in the early '90s as the musing DJ Chris Stevens on CBS' dearly departed Northern Exposure. But then the actor took a wrong turn and wound up trapped between two neurotic, curly-haired women, his own personal Scylla and Charybdis: Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos). During this unfortunate (yet probably profitable!) period in his acting career, Corbett mugged affably, mud-wrestled Carrie's old flame Mr. Big (Chris Noth) and eventually got dumped. In Wedding, he mugged affably, wrestled with Toula's big fat Greek family and eventually got married.
In truth, Corbett hasn't really left his haplessly pleasant shtick behind; he's just allowed it to sour a little, to rub up against the slime that his Lucky sidekicks -- and the show's setting -- seem to carry around with them. Lucky takes place in Las Vegas, you see, and Corbett is a perfect morally conflicted guide to this red-lit, jangling vision of Hell.
Corbett's character Michael "Lucky" Linkletter first appears at the national poker championship, putting on his game face by jabbering to himself in the bathroom mirror. Ensconced behind a wall of chips, he smirks, then lays down his hand. The casino erupts: He's won the $1 million purse, and the first thing he's gonna do, he tells everyone, is marry the fetching blonde by his side.
Fast-forward a year, and Lucky's luck has run out. The $1 million is gone. He's so broke, in fact, he couldn't even afford to pay for his wife's funeral. We're not told how she died, but Lucky looks so guilt-stricken that he must have had something to do with it. Once again he's yapping to his bathroom mirror, but this time he needs to bag a commission for selling cars, a sum hopefully big enough to repay his in-laws for the money they lent him for the funeral -- money they're coming to collect tomorrow.
Call it two days in the life of a loser. In his furious quest for cash, Lucky has run-ins with all manner of unpleasant people: a drugged-out groupie, Lucky's nasty car-dealer boss, a compulsively smoking gambler named "Trach" (due to recent throat surgery) and a freaky loan shark fresh out of prison. Dan Hedaya gives this last character a nice, manic energy with flourishes he must have picked up from the Al Pacino School of Crazy Acting Roles. His Joey Legs barks at the trunk of his car, which is thumping and screaming suspiciously; he loves the comic-strip Marmaduke. And he spends a lot of time trying to lure Lucky back to the poker table -- a temptation Lucky struggles to fight through Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
Lucky has quite a colorful cast, including Lucky's sidekicks, (played by Billy Cardell and Craig Robinson), who manage to steal every scene they're in. But the roles seem surprisingly fleshed out, not mere packages of tics, quirks and idiosyncrasies. Las Vegas itself is a major player, all seductive neon and whirring, beeping machines. Beautifully composed camera work shows us the dangerous draw of gambling, a siren song Lucky finds hard to resist. Late in the first episode, he visits yet another bathroom to consult with himself. All red tiles and white stalls, it's as sleek and pristine as anything in a Target commercial -- until we notice the red smear running down Lucky's face. He was mugged for his money and is poised on the edge of a gambling relapse.
Corbett holds his own against this crazy backdrop. Outfitted in white suits and Crest-green shirts and boasting a formidable pompadour and sideburns, he has the pathos of the middle-era Elvis, not yet bloated but already lost. Lucky has charm to spare, but sleaze creeps into even his sincere moments. When he pays back his in-laws, he says, "I hope you take the money as a sign that I am truly, truly sorry," crying the whole while. But he makes that classic gambler's mistake: thinking that cash can stand in for any number of emotions, the joy and promise of the first scene, the remorse of this last.
The two whirlwind days captured in Lucky's pilot hint at both substance and style -- the fall from grace, the addiction, the frightening and funny characters. Once in awhile, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and Michael Spiller don't strike quite the right notes between drama and comedy, darkness and wit. The use of music can be too obvious ("Won't You Be My Neighbor" plays as we watch a scam go down), the romantic interest Lucky encounters at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting spouts self-absorbed angst and Corbett's mirror monologues seem out of place, a cheap device the show doesn't need. But despite these flaws, Lucky shows the potential of a good gamble -- part risk, part promise. With its dark Sin City take on one man's struggle, Lucky may yet beat the odds.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online.