In Defense ofhe HBO Television Series, ‘Luck’

[21 March 2012]

By Colin McGuire

PopMatters Music Reviews Editor

This Sunday, AMC’s Mad Men returns. It’s no secret that the dark portrayal of ‘60s America—or, more specifically, ‘60s Madison Avenue, New York City, America—has become a full-fleged, no-doubt-about-it hit. The show’s success has earned it a spot near the top of Popular Culture Mountain, if only because of the influx of skinny ties and Lucky Strike paraphernalia that keeps circulating among the masses. 

Mad Men‘s euphoric rise can be directly correlated with a society’s obsession aimed at the notion that our best moments have already happened. We all can find enough drama, sex and alcohol in our own lives to keep us interesting. What we can’t do, however, is soak in those ideals while still being able to mindlessly dismiss women for no other reason than the ugly and simple-minded idea that women are supposed to be dismissed. Well, that and the fact that we also can’t smoke cigarettes at work these days. But that’s what makes Mad Men so appealing: It’s human nature to want what we can’t have, and those types of everyday idiosyncrasies will almost certainly never be accepted as the norm again.

But it seems a bit peculiar that it’s currently common practice to glamorize a type of world that now appears so distant, it’s a wonder that any events before 1970 even occurred on this planet. Forget a different time or a different era. At this point, it kind of feels like the JFK assassination happened on Pluto, or the Beatles once ruled a world that wasn’t called “Earth”. The passing years have created such a divide between generations that history once deemed common knowledge is seemingly becoming more fantasy than fact. 

Enter HBO’s Luck. The Dustin Hoffman-starring racetrack drama was cancelled last week after a third horse died during filming of the show’s second season, a season that will now probably never see the light of day (I say “probably”, only because the comments from everyone around the show seemed to leave an awkward sense of hope that maybe somewhere down the line, the show could be revived).  

“Safety is always of paramount concern,” HBO said in a statement after production stopped. “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.”

I wanted to love Luck. In fact, I still want to love Luck. Though, because I have never lived in a house that has had access to HBO, my plan was to wait for when the DVDs were to be released, presumably later this year, at which time, I would finally sit down with it and give the drama the proper attention I feel it will deserve. Combining my intense love for such previous slow-moving, darkly-lit, dialogue-driven television shows as The Wire and the aforementioned Mad Men, with another obsession I’ve only recently discovered, horse racing, I’ve had many friends tell me without any doubt that I’ll eventually fall head over heels in love with the show, whenever I finally have the time and means to catch up with it.

But because of last week’s events, there’s now a sense of hopelessness when considering the program. The second I saw the news break that a third horse had died on set, I knew the end was going to be quick and imperative. No more than what seemed like seconds later, the network released a statement citing its plans to cancel Luck after the rest of its first season airs. 

The decision to halt taping immediately was, if nothing else, a clear result of how important the revolving door-like realm of political correctness truly is while considering popular culture today. You can push its bounds and you can even step over the line every now and then, but the one thing you can’t do is move your entire body to that side of the divide, even if it’s only for a few seconds. These days, doing so will almost always result in a deafening cry for actions to be taken swiftly and responsibilities to be divvied accordingly. 

Which is precisely why it was a little—if not a lot—unfair to immediately call for the show’s demise.

No, I don’t hate animals (if anything, I’m indifferent). Yes, I have read the reports stating that the two horses that previously perished during filming had already been broken down (though it is also widely reported that the American Humane Association was on set every day to make sure all the animals were cared for properly). And most importantly, I have never—and will never—advocate harm on anything, human or animal.

But it’s hard to imagine the same scenario playing out if three people had died during the filming of a television show, two because of injuries sustained during production and one because of something that can only be described as bad fortune (the most recent death reportedly occurred while the horse was being taken back to her stall and she reared up, striking her head). 

Case in point: Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. The play that many thought was going to turn out as the biggest catastrophe in the history of theater had its opening constantly delayed because of countless accidents and brainless incidents that took place during rehearsals. In fact, calamity began to occur so often, the production became the butt of a great deal of jokes on every medium from television to print ... before the show had even opened. And now look what it’s turned into—one of the biggest money makers on Broadway.

Still, regardless of if it’s people, animals or aliens, there’s one underlying point here that has gone almost entirely unnoticed: Luck gained notoriety for circling its premise around horse racing, an idiom that has been shoved out of the mainstream for quite sometime now. The success of the show itself was contingent upon the recent boom in television nostalgia. Forget the black and white televisions or the beer cans that have to be pried open with a can opener that Mad Men offers. Luck made its point by profiling an old idea, not an old moment in time.

There was a period in America during which only three sports mattered: baseball, boxing and horse racing. That’s a far cry from where the mainstream now turns to, in order to get its athletic kicks (pun completely intended). It’s because of that divide—that separation in time that inevitably causes a longing for distant ideals—that Luck even had a chance to get out of the gate without stumbling. Horse racing has been reserved for addicts and horse owners for decades now, a far cry from the relevance it once enjoyed within the pop culture lexicon. Returning to that particular world was one of the few ideas with which a modern day television show could actually find success (on the flip side, a program based around ‘60s flight attendants clearly could not).

Which brings us to the following question: If we as a culture spend so much time celebrating and idealizing a world that we are currently so blatantly detached from for its now-contrarian approaches to modern day living, then why are we so quick to chastise when incidents or tragedies remind us of exactly what kind of world we live in today?

Presumably, nobody on the set of Luck wanted those horses to die, but as even the network itself acknowledged, accidents happen. The irony here is that the accidents happened during the taping of a television show, which was in essence capitalizing on a resurgent interest in a time and culture during which accidents weren’t nearly as scrutinized as they are today. Or in other words, if Luck was somehow produced in the ‘50s or ‘60s—when horse racing still mattered, rules and regulations weren’t nearly as tight and, say, TMZ didn’t exist—the idea of axing the show in light of these tragedies would hardly be an option. In fact, there’s a good chance that news of the deaths wouldn’t have been made public until years later, after the show had wrapped.

But we live in a reactionary world now. We like to think that all of our own beliefs and values are the correct beliefs and values, and because of that, there simply isn’t much wiggle room for accidents to happen, especially three times over. Naturally, then, it would be improper to suggest that because we think we covet those yesteryear values, we should be forgiving in this particular instance, right? You know—instead of leaving the show for dead, maybe the network could set stronger guidelines for safety when it comes to filming its horse-heavy scenes. Maybe we as a society could accept the notion that unfortunate things do actually happen and when they do, nobody feels good about it. Maybe somebody could take a look at what happened to those horses and simply come up with a better game plan, a better approach to actually make sure nothing like this could ever happen again.

Or even better, maybe we could stop insisting that our best days are behind us and the world in which we live today is no more or less flawed than any other period of time in the history of mankind. If nothing else, the inevitable demise of Luck should be a reminder to us all that maybe our yesterdays aren’t nearly as glamorous as we once thought, and maybe our tomorrows could be a little more pleasant if we take the time to learn from our past, rather than simply gawk over entertaining interpretations of it.

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