Some thoughts on the ‘Luck’ cancellation

I’ve known David Milch for almost 16 years, and I have never seen him more animated or excited than the day we met, when at the tail end of an interview about “NYPD Blue,” he smiled and said, “You should come to the track with me.” I was a 22-year-old newspaper intern; he was the Emmy-winning creator of my favorite TV show. I went to the track. And over the course of an afternoon, Milch regaled me and “NYPD” writer David Mills with stories about a lifetime of watching horse racing. He even offered to cut us in on his winnings if a horse he had bet on came in; I was still new at the newspaper thing and trying to figure out the ethical implications when the horse did me a favor and finished out of the money. Mills and I occasionally talked about that day in the years that followed, and Mills was convinced that one day, when Milch had amassed enough credit in the TV business, he was going to spend it by combining his two passions to make a drama about life at the track.

So “Luck” as an idea has been in my consciousness for a very long time, which is why I’m having trouble processing the news that HBO has canceled the series after a third horse died during filming, early in production of the second season.

An HBO statement said that, “Safety is always of paramount concern.  We maintained the highest safety standards throughout production, higher in fact than any protocols existing in horseracing anywhere with many fewer incidents than occur in racing or than befall horses normally in barns at night or pastures.  While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won”t in the future.  Accordingly, we have reached this difficult decision.”

Milch and director/producer Michael Mann added, “The two of us loved this series, loved the cast, crew and writers.  This has been a tremendous collaboration and one that we plan to continue in the future.”

The show was in the middle of filming the second episode of season two when the cancellation decision was made. There are no plans at present to show the footage from that or the season two premiere. I’ve seen the first season finale, which will air on March 25, and it brings the season to a close well enough. “Luck” has, in general, not been a very plot-driven series, but more about the atmosphere and characters lurking around the Santa Anita track. There is no conclusion to the revenge plot involving Dustin Hoffman’s character, paroled wiseguy Ace Bernstein, but it at least reaches a natural stopping point, while the arcs for a number of the other characters – particularly the four degenerate gamblers (played by Jason Gedrick, Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster and Ian Hart) who have turned into the heart of the series – feel like they’ve concluded well enough.

This is the third series in a row Milch has done for HBO, and the third to end more abruptly than he had planned. “Deadwood” was canceled after the third season (out of a planned four) for financial reasons, with Milch playing the good soldier and playing along with the story that he was really eager to move on to the metaphysical surfing drama “John from Cincinnati.” (Though I continue to argue to this day that the final “Deadwood” episode actually works better as a series finale than planned, or than it works as a finale to the third season. Milch wrote an ending without realizing it.) “John” was a mess, creatively and financially, and HBO pulled the plug after only one season.

“Luck,” though, seemed in better shape. The ratings had been poor (averaging about 500,000 viewers for each Sunday premiere), despite a big marketing campaign and the presence of Hoffman and Nick Nolte in the cast, but many of the reviews (my own included) were strong, HBO had already renewed it for that second season, and Milch and Mann’s working arrangement (where Mann was the final authority and Milch didn’t get to do his usual last-second rewrites) made it a more under-control production than “Deadwood” or “John” had been. Even with the low ratings, it was easy to see “Luck” running a while, particularly if Hoffman and/or Nolte started picking up Emmys.

Then one horse died. And another. And then another. And given that this project was being made by people with a deep, deep passion for horses, at a certain point, they had to say that their art simply wasn’t worth the cost of these animals’ lives.

I’ve already seen some suggestions on Twitter that HBO wouldn’t have canceled the show if its ratings were bigger – that if a show with an audience the size of “True Blood” saw three animals die during production, they’d have found an excuse to keep going. I’d like to think the moral calculus wouldn’t be that cynical, but we don’t know. All we know is what happened here, and while I’m sad Milch won’t get to keep telling this story(*), I can’t object to the decision that was made.

(*) When I interviewed Milch and Mann before the season, I asked Milch one question at the end about where season two might go, one that I kept out of the published interview transcript, but that I’ll try to include in my review of what’s now the series finale.

Milch is an improviser by nature. On his other series, he would come up with new dialogue right up until the cameras were ready to roll (and sometimes after). When HBO rejected his pitch to do a show about a couple of cops in ancient Rome because they already had a Rome show in development, he reconfigured it into “Deadwood.” He’s fond of repeating the old saying that, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

It feels like Milch had been planning his whole life to do this show. And he got to do it for a season.

Then God laughed.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at