Tuesday, March 6, 2012


And so it goes. After airing its ninth episode, LUCK will conclude its run on HBO this Sunday, having been swiftly cancelled after a third horse was fatally injured during production. The news came as a disappointment, and a bit of a shock, but there's little question that they did the right thing. Less surprising was the sudden rash of cynical posturing on the internet: commentators and "industry insiders" who wasted no time in claiming that this was really all about ratings, that if the show had been a Sopranos (or even True Blood) -sized hit, they would have just kept on trucking, dead horses be damned. Glib speculation, especially in the internet age, is nothing new, and it's important to remember that even an artist-friendly shop like HBO is still driven by profits. Still and all, to suppose that the creative powers behind LUCK would have permitted the risk of injuring more horses to continue for the sake of viewership is to miss the show's main subject. For above all, LUCK was about (and created by) people who love horses.

Among the horse lovers is David Milch, for whom LUCK was clearly a passion project. Through Milch's writing, the horses emerged as a central motif and unifying symbol. They represented something real amidst the shell-games of late capitalism. They were something onto which the characters - being Milch-world, these people were vibrantly flawed and broken - could project their hopes and dreams. They brought joy and exaltation; as Milch has often remarked, the substance and purpose of art, a raising of the spirit from all that weighs it down.

I'll go on the record here and say that I didn't love LUCK as much as I wanted to. It's been a long time since DEADWOOD was prematurely axed, and for those of us who had come to love that star-crossed but immensely satisfying show, LUCK seemed full of promise. (For another post is the ill-fated JOHN FROM CINCINNATI, which was unfairly maligned but problematic, burdened with inconsistent performances and pedestrian filmmaking.) LUCK's relatively modest flaws are difficult to nail down, exactly, but I suspect it had something to do with a fundamental creative disconnect between Milch and Mann. This pairing certainly had its benefits, but even from the beginning there was the whiff of over-development - why have just one prestigious mega-producer when you can have two? - being the kind of thing that studio execs tend to go all mushy over. Milch clearly has a long-lasting relationship with HBO, but he's known for his, shall we say, unconventional methods, of which he himself has admitted does not endear him to the bean-counters. It's possible that Mann was brought on for his massive ego as much as for any commercial or aesthetic cachet, with the bosses supposing that this was just the guy to shape the brilliant but disorderly Milch's material into something coherent, marketable, and "iconic." Speculation aside, the arrangement was what it was, with a clean breakdown between writing and everything else, and for me at least, the results were pretty varied.

In a way, the tension between the words and their execution should be no great surprise. Milch, despite his claims to the contrary, is an auteur. You need only view some of the behind-the-scenes footage from the Deadwood DVDs to understand that he was intimately involved with every detail of the show, up to and including the performances, which were shaped and re-shaped through his interaction with the performers.  I've no doubt that Milch is a great collaborator - plenty of actors have spoken to that effect. But usually, there's room for only one creative mastermind on any set, and this is where the aesthetic problems of LUCK might have originated. Mann is himself an auteur of some repute, and one of a very different kind. 

Probably the most direct example of Milch's and Mann's stylistic diversions lies in their treatment of characters. Milch's characters drive the narrative, or rather his stories are driven by the character's development over time.  Mann's characters deal with change too, but their stories aren't driven by it. Put simply, Mann's work is pitched in a mythic register, with archetypes and familiar story arcs.  You could also call Mann's characters existential, as several writers have; in either case, nuanced psychology and an intense focus on behavior is not the main concern.  Milch's approach is on the other hand more novelistic, chock-full of colorful characters of every stripe, who bluster and scheme and bump into each other in all kinds of interesting and unexpected ways. Mann's work is linear and sleek, like a bullet train, while Milch's work is crooked and rambling, like a knotty oak tree. I probably don't need to emphasize that I think Milch's work is in general richer and more rewarding, and feels truer to life. Mann's work is exhilarating on a fantastical level, but it doesn't quite stir me the way Milch's does. And with LUCK, these two different approaches clashed.

Too often, there were directorial flourishes - slow motion, swelling music, fancy shots and cuts - that, while clearly intended to underscore and support the action, just ended up overselling it. Milch's characters are riveting enough without having a synth cue insisting that what's happening is Of Great Importance.  Nothing is less rewarding for an audience than being told how to feel, and too often this was the effect of the filmmaking on LUCK. Part of his has to do with Milch's use of humor, which is generously dispersed throughout his work. Mann, on the other hand, while not humorless, tends to be more consistently serious, and I don't think he always knew what to do with the comic beats in LUCK. It was clear that he was most at home dealing with the existential yearnings and fugue-like mystery of the environment; the grubby details and everyday idiocy of life just didn't engage his imagination as much.

Was there a solution? Milch isn't Oz, and I don't think he can be a cinema-style auteur, with his constant rewriting of the scripts. It is good to have a director with a strong visual sensibility to abet the workings of the text, but perhaps not one as willful and independent as Mann. Still, with all that said, the show was, at least on a creative level, quite successful. I didn't love it, again, the way I wanted to love it, which really means that it wasn't Deadwood, and I should just reconcile myself to the fact that nothing will be Deadwood ever again, and get over it already.  LUCK gave us angles and permutations of Milch's work, and Mann's, that never would have arisen independently of one another, and for that I'm grateful. It was thrilling to watch such a first-rate cast work with such elevated material, as it always is to watch talented professionals enjoy what they are doing; such enjoyment invariably manifests itself in the quality of the performances. As much as LUCK never quite seem to establish itself stylistically, it does build very effectively to a satisfying conclusion. Would it have only improved in another season? Probably. The last few episodes indicated lots of promise, but we won't ever now for sure. That's as much as we'll get, and that's enough for now.

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