HBO’s Luck had so many problems that it almost seemed like the title was supposed to be ironic (or at least provide set-ups for subject headings like this one). The rumoured conflicts between creator David Milch and creator Michael Mann; the low ratings. What finally did it in, though, was the controversy over its treatment of animals: two horses were hurt and had to be euthanized during the first season, and another one died during production on the second season. That third death was apparently the last straw; the show has been canceled.
Since the cancellation announcement was only made a few minutes ago, it’s too soon to know the whole story behind the end of the show – let alone why it was unable to fix its safety problems after two deaths had already occurred. (Some have argued that this is inherent to horse-racing, rather than inherent to the production style of the show; that may be so, but a show needs to maintain more stringent safety standards than real life or even real sports.) But it’s hard not to speculate that the negative coverage was a nightmare for HBO. Luck is one of those shows, like Treme and Enlightened, that HBO picks up despite the ratings: demonstrating that they support an ambitious show, and that the ratings are not the only things that matter, is what the network calls a “brand enhancer.” (And it helps that on a pay channel, ratings are not, in fact, the only things that matter; overall prestige helps get you subscribers.) But that only works if the show is actually enhancing the network’s brand, not dragging it down. The show itself was divisive but had some compelling supporting characters, and Matt Seitz for one felt it had developed into “a great series” midway through its first and only season (which will finish airing on March 25).
But HBO can live with a show that inspires divisive reactions among viewers; a show that makes them look bad in real life, for the treatment of real-life animals, is another thing. If the show really couldn’t go on without safer treatment of horses, as HBO implies in the press release, then it obviously had to go. What we don’t know yet is whether that is the reason or just an excuse. In other words, maybe they could have continued the show with fewer racing scenes, or racing scenes shot differently; maybe not (only the network and producers really know that). But it’s possible that even if they could have continued it without killing horses, the very fact that it happened – and continued to happen after they’d been warned – may have brought Luck to an end as a brand enhancer for HBO, and therefore as a show.