Luck: Or the Ambitious HBO Series that Couldn't Catch a Break

by Paul Deeter

HBO or Home Box Office as its less frequently referred to was the channel to beat for next-to-Hollywood level content that didn't require a trip to the box office. The idea of HBO is now synonymous with original content, but the actual channel was invented for a completely different reason, all the way back in 1971. HBO was not initially intended to be a platform for developing new series and films but instead offered TV owners the ability to access films as intended upon home release. In the early 70s it was Codenamed "The Green Channel", [and] the conceptual subscription service would offer unedited theatrical movies licensed from the major Hollywood film studios and live sporting events, all presented without interruptions by advertising and sold for a flat monthly fee to prospective subscribers. This concept is still true to this day, although HBO is no longer alone in the market for premium cable channels. Even before the streaming culture took over, the availability of channels like Cinemax (actually produced from the HBO network) and Starz were there for the real nitty, gritty releases of unedited films and other adult content. Prior to original programming, the idea of having these uncensored channels still appealed greatly to home audiences. In fact, Cinemax would be so infamous for adult content, it founded a spot for explicit and even pornographic programs (giving it the not subtle nickname "Skinemax" among critics). So with the ensuing popularity of multiple channel spots after HBO rising, the consensus with the powers to be was that there needed to be more for home viewers. A place for new and original content.

Despite the overwhelming presence of Drama series today, HBO was almost strictly a place for late night comedy from the 90s until 1997. Cult favorites like Mr. Show with Bob and David and The Larry Sanders Show did well enough to garner Emmy and Golden Globe nominations across the years they were on. The critical consensus was solid for these series and overwhelmingly so when the channel adopted its first, dark drama original series: Oz. Oz would be like nothing ever before on television, a dark tale of criminals and captives locked into the worst prison imaginable ironically referred to as Oz. The series did not shy away from its explicit violence and sexual content, and despite not being the subject of conversation anymore I'd consider it a cult classic. Oz is not a light show be warned, but if you're interested in seeing one of J.K. Simmons best turns as an evil convict, I implore you to dive in.

J.K. Simmons in Oz

There's a lot more popularity when it comes to the sophomore series for HBO, the gargantuan epic The Sopranos. Still considered one of, if not the greatest series of all time, Sopranos established a sense of production level that would put HBO not just on the market as a home for unedited films but a potential space for the creation of original projects that could match those films in quality. It was the platform to watch, and it was one where an original show could have the opportunity for awards as well. Therefore it attracted bigger acts behind the shows too, big name directors such as Alan Ball who's acclaim for American Beauty (1999) put him on the map before 2001's series Six Feet Under. And then after multiple star-making hits like Big Love and True Blood, and a few duds like Carnivale and Rome, director Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of Boardwalk Empire a production which would go on to win many awards and become a huge success. There was no name too big to work with HBO. If a director like Scorsese would create his own series for TV and would choose HBO as the home to do it, where else could a show like Luck exist?

Let's talk about Luck, (finally.) I apologize for a lengthy preamble on the history of HBO, but I think it's necessary to set up just what makes this channel so appealing for future projects, especially an original one. Sure remakes and reboots of series like the many CSI clones are bound for non-premium cable channels, but an original series like Luck is special. First off, David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue is at the helm, and working with the unmistakable Dustin Hoffman as lead. For example, Big Love with its unusual premise of a mormon-polyamorous marriage, had Bill Paxton at its lead, the starpower needed to start a new series. So with an established creator behind the scenes and a solid face to boot, Luck did not seem to need too much of that luck to hit the ground-running by reputation alone. In December of 2011, after multiple trending trailers online and on TV promised a slick, speedy new series with an Oscar-winning lead, none other than Michael Mann stepped up to the directorial plate. There's a lot riding (hehe) on this series, and a lot of big players behind the scenes.

I haven't even gone into the premise of the series, but this is what I would argue is the downfall of its relevance today. The controversies, which we will get into, outweigh the actual set up of this ambitious series, which is a bit muddy. The concept involves an ex-convict named Ace Bernstein (Hoffman) who was set up by his own gang to serve three years behind bars. The release brings him back to what he knows best: horse racing. Milch himself holds a fondness for horse racing, has so since the age of five, and regards the project as something close to his heart, a project he wanted to make his whole career, even 50 years in the making. He's quoted saying: "I hope it's a love letter. By saying that, I'm not saying it's a story coming through rose-colored glasses. To me, the track is what the river was to Mark Twain. Where you see the most life and interesting people, go there. That's what I've done." It doesn't need to be said that Milch may have gotten a bit ahead of myself here. His confidence at least probably was enough to encourage HBO to be on board. Well that, and David Milch's previous work on their popular series Deadwood. What could go wrong?

Spirits are clearly high on the set of Luck.

The desire for realism is where things get a little muddy. With 50 horses originally hired for the show, it was rumored that the horses underwent multiple strenuous exercises, due to the many injuries reported. In fact, before PETA made an official statement and an investigation went into the show, two horses were euthanized due to injuries sustained...the American Humane Association (AHA) said both racehorses "stumbled and fell during short racing sequences" and that "the horses were checked immediately afterwards by the onsite veterinarians and in each case a severe fracture deemed the condition inoperable." There's only so much we know behind the scenes, but publicly HBO has responded with apology to the controversy, and claimed the horses used were appropriately rested between races. And all this over the course of less than three months.

In January of 2012, the series premiere (directed by Mann) was released to over a million viewers on HBO, and critics were mostly enamoured by the production level and quality of performances at bay. So it was during this release and over the course of 9 official episodes (that are released and can be watched today on HBO Max) that Luck was in the limelight long enough to be held under controversy. And as premium shows go, the second season was in works prior to the success of the first and season two had two episodes filmed before on March 14th, 2012, after a third horse death on set, HBO pulled the plug on Luck. But even by episode two of the first season, viewership dropped by over 50%. Seemed that the news got to crowds and critics, and there simply was too much controversy outweighing what could have been a quality Milch production.

Oh shit I got cast in Luck didn't I?

It's a bit ridiculous, all of it. I don't really blame David Milch, and even sympathize with the fact that he's wanted to make a show like Luck for over 50 years. A childhood dream of his that got trampled, if you will. I think the problem is with HBO's team and perhaps their work with the series. It's not good publicity to push a show past initial trouble, especially into investigation. And maybe that realism that was attempted by the series was in fact a use for cruelty. I don't truly believe the response that each horse was treated well, and there's too much mystery to understand the full story. But I do not sympathize with Luck the show. It's the show that could've been, but perhaps never needed to.

Luck was maybe just a fever dream by a producer wanting to make his life long story a reality. Maybe it found the wrong network, or just took the wrong steps to adapt to home audiences. But, when it comes to HBO's choice of programming, it seems in 2012 that they simply bet on the wrong horse.

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