By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, March 18, 2012 — Is David Milch out of luck?
Well, HBO keeps going back to him, despite the pay-cable channel’s uneven track record with the critically acclaimed producer/writer of TV shows people either love or hate.
Milch’s latest creation, the HBO horse-racing series “Luck,” made television history last week when it was abruptly cancelled due to the deaths of three horses during the filming of the show. The latest, an accident in which a horse fatally injured itself while being walked back to its stall (it was euthanized), happened last Tuesday.
A day later, HBO made the stunning announcement: Production on “Luck” was being shut down for good.
The show was in the midst of filming one of the early episodes in its second season, even as the first season was still underway. “Luck,” airing Sunday nights at 9 on HBO, has its second-to-last episode on Sunday (March 18) and its final, first-season episode — now its last episode ever — the following weekend (March 25). Only nine episodes were made for the first season, and HBO was so excited about the show (for, among other reasons, it had succeeded in luring Dustin Hoffman to star in his first TV show) that the cable channel renewed it for a second season almost immediately after the very first episode aired back in late January.
Now, that’s not going to happen as “Luck” goes into the history books as the first TV series ever cancelled due to the deaths of animals used in its production.
In the wake of this week’s cancellation announcement, two subjects to contemplate: (1) Will “Luck” be missed? And (2) what of David Milch, the bard of Buffalo (the New York city where he was raised), for whom “Luck” was his fourth go-round with HBO (that we know of)?
First, on the merits of “Luck”: Like Milch’s other shows, this one was an acquired taste. And according to at least one report we read the other day, “Luck” drew more than a million viewers for its premiere and then, eventually, the audience fell to about half that. The story even suggested HBO was seeking an excuse to cancel “Luck,” and the unlucky horses provided the reason the channel needed to pull the plug. That’s just conjecture, but my take is: That’s not a far-fetched scenario at all.
Why’d so many people abandon the show? For the love/hate reason suggested above. The thing people love about Milch’s shows, primarily, is the intriguing, highly literate dialogue he writes for his characters. Lovers of great writing appreciate when his characters engage in his trademark verbal sparring, even when they go off on irrelevant tangents, such as last week’s out-of-left-field conversation in which two characters debated the details of the Three Stooges’ “Niagara Falls” comedy bit.
The unusual tone and tempo of the dialogue is also why millions get turned off by Milch. For one thing, it’s not what they’re used to hearing on TV shows. For another, his shows often suffer from an action deficit. Often, you go entire episodes without much happening. Instead, the hour is sucked up by dialogues that, yes, are very creative, but also stultifying.
That was the thing with “Luck”: The acting was great, for the most part (Hoffman, Michael Gambon, Jason Gedrick, Joan Allen, Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy and all the rest), the horse-racing scenes were electrifying, and the cinematography was beautiful. Still, not much happened. And that’s a turn-off for many. (Why include the phrase “for the most part” above? Because the one cast member I didn’t care for was Nick Nolte, who played a gravel-voiced horse trainer.)
As for Milch, his track record with HBO is fascinating: First, there was “Deadwood,” everyone’s favorite Western series and the one that changed forever our perceptions of how the Old West should be portrayed from here on out. Well, that series got cancelled suddenly before Milch had planned to end it, and fans howled in protest. HBO promised some future “Deadwood” TV movies, but no one believed that, and indeed, they never happened.
Then there was Milch’s one-season series about a dysfunctional family of southern California surfers and their interactions with a godlike alien – “John From Cincinnati.” For most people, that show was even less accessible than “Luck.” (But again, like with all Milch shows, opinions vary widely. I happened to love “John From Cincinnati” and consider it to be one of the finest TV shows ever produced. Go figure.)
He then tried his hand at another cop show (he’d long been associated with “NYPD Blue” on ABC) called “Last of the Ninth” (referring to the Ninth Precinct of the NYPD). He produced a pilot for HBO, but the network declined. Then they said yes to “Luck” and that show bit the dust because of dead animals.
Will HBO take up any new business with Milch after all of this? Well, it’s not his fault the horses died, but on this question, as with all Milch questions, there are two camps: Those who love him hope HBO will try again with him. Those who can’t stand his shows won’t mourn the passing of “Luck.”
If you’ve been following “Luck” up to this point, I suggest you carry it through to the end, even though the March 25 finale does not serve as a series ender. Truth is, you only really have to expend two more hours with this star-crossed show. And then it’s good-bye and good luck to “Luck.”
“Luck” airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on HBO (for two more weeks, alas).
Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org