HBO's 'Luck' was no sure thing from get-go
Take two volatile creative geniuses with differing visions, add a slow-moving plot about an arcane sport with incoherent characters who speak in obscure lingo, throw in the dangers of working with animals, and you have a trifecta, but not the good kind.
The death of a third horse during production made it easy for HBO to pull the plug on its horse-racing drama "Luck." Already renewed for a second season despite very low ratings, "Luck" was quickly becoming the type of vanity project that HBO may no longer have the luxury to indulge.
HBO brass often makes the case that because it is a pay cable channel that carries no advertising, it doesn't have to worry about ratings. That is true to an extent. HBO's billion dollars in profits comes from subscriber fees as well as sales of its content both here and abroad.
However, ratings do indicate whether a show is catching on with HBO's audience. HBO has close to 30 million subscribers. It is a number that has not been growing in recent years (while its competitors Showtime and Starz have added subscribers) and, in a tough economy, all pay cable channels have to be worried that frugal consumers may decide to save a few bucks.
That doesn't mean every HBO show has to be a home run. Indeed, a massive hit on HBO is considered a flop on a broadcast or basic cable channel that is available in more than 100 million homes. HBO knows it has a diverse subscriber base. It kept "The Wire," its critically acclaimed drama about the drug war in Baltimore, on for five seasons because it appealed to those who liked intellectual political drama as well as viewers who enjoyed a gritty crime show.
But "Luck" was not even a hit by HBO standards, drawing less than 500,000 viewers in its Sunday night time slot. While additional runs during the week and people watching episodes they had recorded earlier likely boosted those numbers, the show's limited appeal made "Luck" a bad long-term bet.
That HBO renewed "Luck" after only one episode aired was seen as a case of jumping the gun since the premiere had only drawn 1.1 million viewers. Given that the star-studded cast of "Luck" includes Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, and that it is produced by David Milch ("Deadwood," "NYPD Blue") and Michael Mann ("Miami Vice," "Heat"), a second season was all but guaranteed before the show's debut. (The network is also bringing back its dark comedy "Enlightened," starring Laura Dern even though its ratings were also very low with one episode drawing less than 100,000 viewers.)
One reason such creative talent comes to HBO is that the pay cable channel is known for being very patient with its shows. Often, though, the network brings back a show with very limited appeal for a second season and then kills it -- as was the case with the series "How to Make It in America," "Rome" and "Carnivale." In that way HBO has avoided the stigma of having a first-season flop.
The behind-the-scenes drama early on in production with "Luck" should have been a red flag to HBO. Milch and Mann, both perfectionists, often clashed. "There was a day that David was going to kill Michael," Nolte recently recalled in an interview with The Times. The tension behind the scenes, coupled with a lack of action on the screen, led to mixed reviews from critics, many of whom thought "Luck" was a scratch.
"This nine-episode series is maddeningly and needlessly opaque, and so deferential to the rites and rituals of the track that the storytelling is labored and even joyless," wrote Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times in her review of "Luck."
If "Luck" had been a big hit, HBO might have been willing to weather the storm from the death of the horses. But given that "Luck" was unlikely to win, place or show with critics and viewers, putting the series down was the network's only real choice.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: HBO's "Luck." Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti / Associated Press