'Luck' Cancellation: Why HBO Made The Right Move

As I tried to process the news that HBO had suddenly canceled "Luck," I read over some unpublished notes I'd made about the show's Season 1 finale, which airs March 25.

One thing I wrote about was how much the show had made me care about the horses on the show -- Mon Gateau, Gettin' Up Morning and Pint of Plain weren't just faceless animals to me. Their stories mattered, to the point that the race in the Season 1 finale had me on the edge of my seat, and not just because director Mimi Leder shot it with heartstopping intimacy and grace. The mere thought of something happening to any of those animals made me feel positively ill (and we need only recall the horse death in the show's pilot to know how crushing it can be when one of these injured animals has to be put down).

Here is a non-spoilery excerpt from my notes on the season (now series) finale's big race:

"There were moments in this race in which the horses appeared to be floating, almost flying. It was a beautiful visual depiction of the emotions that the race aroused in those watching from the stands and those of us watching from our couches. It was impossible not to feel elated and tremendously worried and alive in those race scenes, and once again, I understood the allure of the track. When an incredible race is being run. It's like a shot of adrenaline to the heart for those watching from the stands -- but those of us in the TV audience got to be right in the middle of the action. Some worthy stories take us inside worlds we've never known, and some fictional tales capture the granular details and dilemmas of everyday life, and when David Milch is on his game, his shows do all those things and more. Thanks to his vision and the cast and directors' subtle acuity, I understood why every character cared about that race. And, my God. Those horses were trying so hard, and that was a beautiful thing to see."

How incredible, and ultimately poignant, that "Luck" made me care about the show's animals as much as it made me care about the ragged people in that downtrodden world. Because creator David Milch loves not just the world, but the four-legged creatures that literally make it go, "Luck" allows the audience to see the horses as the intelligent and sometimes sensitive athletes they are. The races take us inside the dangerous traveling bubble that the jockeys and horses inhabit during races: We see just how vulnerable the small bodies of the jockeys are; we see just how dangerous it is to jostle for position in the middle of tons of thundering horseflesh; we see how smart the trainers are when their pre-race strategies pay off; we see how canny and competitive the animals and horses are in the midst of a two-minute explosion of ferocious, unpredictable energy.

No scripted show I've ever seen has ever gone inside a sport the way that "Luck" has. And maybe that's the reason that I have to ultimately agree with the difficult decision to, in effect, euthanize the drama. No animal should die so that we could experience that magic.

Because Milch and fellow executive producer Michael Mann were so wonderful at making these horses come alive as individuals, it's even harder now to contemplate them dying for the sake of art, as magical as that art might be.

Earlier today, when production was put on hold in light of a third animal death, I understood the desire to stop filming until those deaths were investigated more thoroughly. (According to news reports, one animal died this week, during production on the second episode of the Season 2, and two other animals were euthanized after being injured in Season 1.)

I must admit, I was flummoxed at first by the news that the show would end for good, immediately. Why couldn't the investigation go forward? Was HBO worried about pressure from animal rights groups (pressure that, as an animal lover and vegetarian, I didn't exactly disagree with)? Why couldn't more safeguards be put in place to protect the animals?

And, of course, business concerns can't be completely ignored here. Was this partly a smokescreen for HBO's desire to cancel a low-rated, if somewhat critically acclaimed show? As someone asked on Twitter, if "Luck" had had "True Blood's" ratings, would this cancellation have happened? It's a fair question.

In the end, I'm pretty sure HBO will say that ratings had nothing to do with the "Luck" decision, and I'm also fairly sure that, as was the case with the end of "Deadwood," I'll never be wholly sure of what to believe regarding the how and the why the show was canceled. The end of "Luck" might end up being only slightly less murky than the completely confusing and untimely end of "Deadwood."

What I am sure of is that David Milch adores horses. I don't have to ask him to know that; that love exudes from every frame of "Luck." You only have to watch a few episodes of the show to know that he knows racetracks and horses better than almost anything else he's ever studied. And what Milch is terrific at -- and the "Luck" series finale on March 25 bears this out -- is communicating profound, difficult emotions. It's not hard to imagine how hard the horse deaths must have hit him. If he didn't feel confident of the horses' safety, and apparently he had reservations on that score, I can't fault him for shutting down the show.

By the way, it's because the subterranean emotions on "Luck" are so potent that you should absolutely keep watching "Luck," if you've given it a shot. Or you should watch it as an interesting, sometimes intensely compelling 9-episode miniseries, if you haven't seen it yet. The show's series finale is one of my favorite hours of television of the year; it's absolutely gorgeous and the narrative comes together with fresh urgency and momentum.

What makes me sad about "Luck's" untimely end is that, as I said in my review of the show, Milch's best work is cumulative. He adds layers of meaning and emotion and nuance over time, and then, at select moments, slays you with moments of clarity and insight that show you his characters' vulnerable cores. Nobody else does that the way he does that, and I really hope his next show gets more than one season to build up that kind of detail and emotional momentum.

Again, here's an excerpt from my "Luck" finale notes, this time pertaining to the four railbirds at the center of the show:
"The idea that there's a spark of transcendence that will lift them out of the muck of their lives is what animates them and keeps them going. They may live in cheap motels and take terrible care of themsevles, but the thundering hooves occasionally remind them that beauty does exist."

That beauty couldn't come from death. Though I'm sad "Luck" won't go forward, I can understand that decision.