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A Third Horse Dies, and HBO Cancels Luck

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On Tuesday, HBO shut down production on Luck, after the third horse died in the set of the racetrack drama. Yesterday, with the controversy rising and under protest from PETA, HBO abruptly canceled the show, which it had already picked up for a second season which was in production at the time of the final deadly accident. From the network’s statement:

It is with heartbreak that executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann together with HBO have decided to cease all future production on the series LUCK.

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.

We are immensely proud of this series, the writing, the acting, the filmmaking, the celebration of the culture of horses, and everyone involved in its creation.

The show probably could not reasonably go on, but I’m still sad to hear it. We can argue about whether it’s inherently cruel to create a show that re-creates racing, and at least some of the dangers of it. We can argue whether it’s cruel to race horses for sport, to train them to strain their bodies to the breaking point, to watch and to bet on it. I eat too many hamburgers to be sanctimonious here.

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But every frame of Luck exuded love of the horses, for their physical beauty, for their striving and capability, and for the communion that the characters–sad sacks and lost souls, even the most powerful among them–shared with the animals. It took me four or five episodes to really become absorbed in the story of Luck, but Michael Mann’s visuals were immediately gripping, especially the way he captured the horses, on and off the track.

The race scenes were, of course, thrilling and explosive (and, it would turn out, dangerous in the way that actual racing is). But the horses were just as marvelous off the track: even when they were at rest, being washed down, steam rising off their coats, every fame expressed a sense of the tremendous kinetic energy they held in reserve, and the majesty that made the characters love them. Their bulging veins, rippling muscles, polished black eyes—they were almost mythic beings, like Greek statuary come to life. As I wrote in my first review, I’ve never seen any thing that conveyed how beautiful and terrifying these creatures are.

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In Luck, the horses were—are, for the two remaining episodes—the things that made these broken men (mostly men) whole. The show used them beautifully as a metaphor for the struggles of the characters. But the deaths on set–echoed in a heartbreaking and tender scene in the pilot of an injured horse being put down–were not metaphorical, and it’s understandable that HBO decided it couldn’t go further.

How exactly HBO reached that decision will be up for debate. Luck was expensive, ratings were not good–about 500,000 viewers for its first-run episodes–and I’m sure some people will say that the network was using the death as an excuse to cut its losses. But the network has been willing to stick with well-reviewed shows that it believed in; thus, Treme will be coming back for a third season. I’m less inclined to believe the cynical fig-leaf story than Jaime Weinman’s guess: that HBO kept Luck, as it does Treme, for status and stature. A low-rated show can be worth it for HBO if it enhances the network’s overall aura of quality, but not if it entangles the network in controversy.

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Was Luck, as PETA claims, not careful enough in its treatment of the animals? Was the show, as HBO claims, safer than actual horse racing? Both could unfortunately be true. Is it any worse for horses to die in making a show than in actual horse racing, which will long outlive Luck? I can’t take the moral high ground–again, too many burgers–but logical or not, there’s just something more discomfiting about knowing that horses died so we can watch them in the comfort of our living rooms, even in a series that reveres them.

It’s odd and not entirely rational–maybe not finally defensible–but people can be that way. I grew up in Michigan, with its huge hunting and fishing culture, and while I don’t hunt myself, I know that people can hunt animals and yet deeply respect them and nature. Likewise, while I’ve never haunted a track, I believe that people can love the animals that often die in the sport they’re conscripted into.

From everything I’ve seen and heard, I believe David Milch was one of those people, and it showed in his elliptical but poetic scripts. The horse racing culture has long survived the dissonance of celebrating horses in a punishing sport that kills many of them. A TV show can’t do that so easily, and that was finally why Luck ran out.

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