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The Death of ‘Luck’

The Death of 'Luck'

[Spoilers below]

A subsidiary character was killed at the end of episode seven of “Luck,” and with his death and subsequent dumping into the ocean at the opening of the following episode, the show came roaring to life.

And then, less than two weeks before this episode aired, the real-life death of a horse sent the show to a quick and untimely death.

The insertion of the crime drama into the show raised the awful question as to whether network executives are right. Do we really worry about “stakes,” about “life and death?” Are we stuck with law, medicine, and death-dealing fantasy as our only genres? Dick Francis always put a mystery in his racetrack novels. Did David Milch need to do the same?

(The show’s cancellation will doubtless raise other questions about executive decisions; given that I can only speculate, I’ll leave that to others.)

Stripped of the pure quality of the writing and directing of those last two shows (the eighth by John R. Perrotta & Jay Hovdey, directed by Allen Coulter; the finale by co-exec Eric Roth, directed by Mimi Leder), what we have is material far more familiar then the racetrack stories that led up to here: a gangster going out of control, a rival not willing to let things go, an assassination attempt.

This is pure genre story-telling, albeit of the highest order.  The tension is palpable and contagious — suddenly the racetrack stories are more meaningful, as if by pure proximity they gained risk.

But as this new story progressed, it became clear that it wasn’t the genre elements that had given the series the lift it so desperately needed.

It was that this story finally put Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein and Dennis Farina’s Gus Demitriou at the show’s center, where they truly belong.

Hoffman and Farina’s connection to the track had been tenuous at best: Hoffman got out of prison in the pilot, had Farina front for him in buying a horse, and wanted to link the track with casino gambling.

But his life doesn’t depend on any of this, not the way Nick Nolte’s owner/trainer (another character who really flourishes in the season’s final episodes) did, nor any of the jockeys, trainers, vets, and gamblers.

What happened in the last two episodes is that Hoffman and Farina’s characters had something to do of consequence. Farina stopped being a chauffeur and started being a tough guy who could see what others cannot. We finally knew why Hoffman kept him around.

And Hoffman himself had moral choices to make of enormous consequence. It wasn’t his wealth or past that was driving him – it was his sense of obligation and will to stay in the game.

And that balance — that central placement of Hoffman, Farina, and Nolte at the show’s center — suddenly made things right.

“Luck” turned out to be one of those shows that needed its first season to find its voice. Sadly, just as it found it, it was gone, as surely as “Deadwood.” While I doubt that “Luck” will be mourned in the same way, these last two episodes make me very sad not to know where the show was going.

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Let's face it, the show wasn't that great anyway, it felt like the writers were trying really hard to live up to their reputation. As far as the deaths, it's not one horse but three horses who died under strange circumstances to say the least.

Edward Copeland

Horses die at race tracks every day and while sad, nothing indicates that something unusual caused any of those three equine deaths. To me, the surprise came when HBO renewed the show after the first episode with all the behind-the-scenes chaos. Everyone may go with the story that three dead horses led to this, but I have to believe something internal is going on at HBO. They just cleared out a bunch of shows that they've kept around such as Bored to Death and Hung. Suddenly, after Treme followed their usual shooting schedule they decide to delay its premiere to fall for some reason. Look how long of a gap there was between the shooting of the Luck pilot before they agreed to give it the greenlight for a full season of 10 episodes, which ended up being only nine because of behind-the-scenes turmoil. Some say they wouldn't cancel a show that was in production if that weren't the true story about the bad press from the horses and perhaps that was the final straw, but remember that when there was corporate turmoil before they promoted and filmed six entire episodes of the series Six Miles of Bad Road starring Lily Tomlin and Mary Kay Place before the new team killed the show and it never even aired. If they had been smart early on, they should have bought either Mann or Milch out (my preference would have been Mann). It was a near impossibility if you tried to get really specific details about the show because the HBO reps assigned to the series were so overwhelmed by the mess and every question had to go to somewhere else. Need to confirm a line of dialogue? That would have to be doublechecked on Milch's side. Curious about a piece of music? That would be coming from Mann. It was difficult to get the names of actors and characters names. Outside sources told me long before the cancellation that when people asked Milch something about the show, he'd tell them that it wasn't his responsibility because he was still so pissed off about the situation. When they were renewed, he was reluctantly working on second season stories, but his mind and heart had already moved on to the Faulkner project. It's a miracle that Luck turned out to be as good as it did. I can only imagine how great it would have been if someone cracked down, got Milch and Mann to stop acting like Marcia and Jan Brady fighting over the same boy. The pilot episode's most touching scene showed them having to put a horse down. This is what happens in racing. Why aren't these publicity-hungry protesters trying to end the sport instead of a TV show? Their equine death toll doesn't come close to the yearly total in real racing. Then again, that wouldn't get them enough press, would it?


Couldn't agree more. Thanks for writing this piece. It will be a "love of narrative" tiny thorn in my side never knowing where the storylines/characters could have gone–&thereby taken us.

J Thalken

Just, so well put. Thank you.

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