Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thoughts on "Luck" Cancellation

It's been interesting reading articles and comments about HBO's abrupt decision to cancel "Luck" after a third horse died onset during filming of the second season. I'm very disappointed by this decision because I thought the show, while not perfect, was amazingly produced, written, and acted.

I was probably predisposed to liking Luck, due to being a huge fan of NYPD Blue and Deadwood and the much-maligned John from Cincinnati. Still, I went into the show with an open mind and was cautiously optimistic about it after watching the first episode. It looked beautiful, but I didn't understand some of what was going or what some of the characters said (Escalante and Nick Nolte's Walter Smith). So I watched the first episode again. And I immediately had an emotional reaction to every scene.

That was the amazing thing about Luck. You didn't have to understand everything that was going on. But Luck demanded that you feel it. It was as if the show aimed at your heart first and then let your brain catch up later. And that's an impressive and difficult thing to do on television with a large ensemble and without the convenience of voice-overs or gratuitous exposition (okay, ANY exposition).

Luck also didn't have a main character, which in itself is innovative. Most ensemble shows have some strong lead, probably the most famous actor. But anyone who saw beyond the first episode would know that Dustin Hoffman's spectacular performance of Ace Bernstein was just one piece in a large puzzle. This is a show that gave equal time between Oscar winners and a stammering unlucky jockey Agent played by Richard Kind (whose most recognizable role is Larry's annoying cousin Andy from Curb and his supporting roles in Mad About You and Spin City from the 90's). But midway through the season, I cared as much about Ace as I did about Joey.

And then there's the Degenerate crew. Everyone seems to agree they were the heart of the series and I looked forward their scenes the most. Their back and forth banter, their volatile friendships, and their burgeoning horse business were fascinating to watch. There's a wordess scene from a recent episode where the four degenerates emerge from their motel rooms to watch the sunset. I absolutely loved that scene. It didn't serve any purpose in regards to moving their storyline forward, but it reinforced the bond they've nurtured since the beginning of the series. Moments like that, when you feel the emotions that the creators of the show are aiming for, made Luck great.

As for the circumstances of the cancellation, I am definitely of two minds. It's a sad thing when any animal dies, but the reality of using horses for racing is that sometimes they get overexerted and they die, which is what happened previously during the first season. The third death was an accident where the horse unexpectedly reared, flipped over, and hit its head. It's unfortunate. And I hate to use cliches, but "Shit DOES Happen" despite safety precautions.

So was it really out of pressure from PETA and the Humane Society to cancel the show that HBO pulled the plug? Or were sagging ratings to blame? I thought HBO didn't really care about ratings. They've been renewing the underrated Treme and I don't think a lot of people are watching that show. But from what I've read, Treme is very cheap to produce and Luck is a massive production with high salaries for those aforementioned Oscar winners.

It's safe to assume that it was a combination of factors that forced HBO to make this decision, but I don't agree with it. Luck was too good for that fate. Maybe they should have taken a few days to recover from the shock of the horse's death and come up with some compromise where there was less need to use horses. Commenters have rightly pointed out that the show was slowly moving away from the track anyway with some of the best racing sequences in the first few episodes. They could have found some creative ways to move forward with the second season with less reliance on the horses.

It's a tough thing to process when something you care about, as I've grown to care about Luck, is going to end with a proper goodbye. Deadwood ended with at least a semblance of finality in regards to the biggest storyline on the show (Hearst). And look at what great things Joss Whedon was able to do with the final episodes of Dollhouse because he knew it was ending. He accelerated storylines that were supposed to take seasons to unfold and it became an amazing show in its late 5-10 episodes. We could have had a similar situation here, with a shortened second season that allowed David Milch to bring some storylines to a close.

Finally, I'd like to address some of the many comments I've seen around the internet about how "bad" Luck is/was. People complaining about the dense storylines and "all they did was TALK!" Oh no, how offensive! Luck was a show that didn't have violence or sex. It had interesting dialogue and complex characters. I appreciated the detailed character work and slow, casual, pace. It was much more cinematic than what you're use to on TV.

I am very disappointed that Luck won't be coming back for a second season. But I can add it to the the list of amazing programming that HBO continues to deliver that didn't quite make it to their natural conclusion. Shows like Carnvale, Rome, and now, Luck.

One more thing. I've seen a lot of people saying their cancelling their HBO after news broke about the third horse death. I saw the same thing after the shocking season finale of Broadwalk Empire and the recent cancellation of Bored to Death. People, STOP LYING. I know you want to see what happens in the next season of True Blood. I know you want more sex and violence in one episode than Sopranos did in six seasons.

But that's the amazing thing about HBO. I can love a ridiculous show like True Blood as much as smart fantasy like Game of Thrones and a nuanced character study like Enlightened. There's room for everyone! Or so I thought.

(One of my favorite TV writers, Mo Ryan, just posted a great article about all this on HuffPost: here)