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Who watched Luck? Who watched John from Cincinnati? Who watched Deadwood?
Not many people, it's true, but then again not many people watched The Wire when it was on HBO every Sunday night and that show aired for five full seasons before HBO told creator David Simon that he should think about calling it quits.
After five brilliant seasons, HBO's best series ended with a fitting finale that nicely tied up loose ends for its dedicated viewers and didn't fall victim to a premature cancellation. Simon was given fair warning about concluding his series, giving him a full season to work toward a definite conclusion.
Show head David Milch, the creator of the three aforementioned HBO programs, was never afforded the luxury granted to Simon or David Chase, creator of The Sopranos. Since 2004, Milch has spearheaded three HBO programs and each one of them had ended suddenly, for different reasons. Does Milch have a curse when it comes to producing shows for HBO?
While saying Milch is "cursed" might be an overstatement, we can say, ironically, that he has not been very lucky. Milch's story ideas are undeniably brilliant and ambitious, and he has always succeeded in carrying them out, but the results have been varied.
From 2004-2006, Milch's Deadwood immediately followed HBO's opus, The Sopranos, on Sunday nights. It followed an ensemble of characters at the illegal white settlement on Indian land, Deadwood. The territory was not officially part of the United States, therefore law and order were never clearly established and the territory became a playground for heinous violence and salty language. The show starred Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, the unofficial king of the Deadwood colony, who could present himself as a powerful leader but also a feared figure. McShane provides a performance that is so extraordinary it's truthfully hard to compare any other great television performance in the past or since Deadwood that can rival McShane's excellence.
Swearengen is without a doubt the breakout character of this series and provided McShane with an opportunity to show just how talented of an actor he is. Surprisingly, the actor's popularity is still rather tame and he was only nominated for an Emmy once, in 2005, and shockingly lost to James Spader for Boston Legal. The show also stars Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock, a loose figure of the law, a role that paved the way, and is strikingly similar, to his Emmy nominated role of Raylan Givens on FX's Justified.
For three seasons, Milch's grimy drama wowed audiences with its gritty realism, breathtaking technical attributes, and phenomenal acting, directing, and writing right up to the point where HBO decided to cancel the show after the conclusion of season 3. Milch had planned for the show to run for four seasons, but HBO decided to cap it at one less season. Discouragingly, Milch was never able to provide audiences with a purposeful finale and they have had to suffice with the season finale to season 3 as the show's ending. Many will argue that the "finale" actually works quite well as a series closer, like blogger Alan Sepinwall, who writes, "I continue to argue to this day that the final Deadwood episode actually works better as a series finale than planned, or than it works as a finale to the third season. Milch wrote an ending without realizing it."
Regardless, fans of the series were heartbroken, as is typical when a show that has gained fandom from its target niche audience is cancelled, and having to say goodbye to their beloved characters before they were truly ready. But Milch played everything fine and decided that he was more eager to start work on his next project anyway, the trippy, metaphysical surfing drama, John from Cincinnati.
John from Cincinnati is a show that has proved very difficult to correctly explain to people. On a very basic level, it follows the highly dysfunctional Yost family living on Imperial Beach, California who encounter a wealthy surfing enthusiast (Cincinnati native, John) and a man who was rejected by the Yosts many years prior. Weaved into that surface level plot description are paranormal and metaphysical phenomenons, odd occurrences that transpire immediately after John's arrival at Imperial Beach.
It placed itself in a far less grounded reality than Milch's previous series which is why it most likely failed to resonate with audiences, or critics for that matter. John from Cincinnati also targeted a specific kind of people, but unfortunately for Milch, that group was way too small and HBO cut the show's cord after only a single season. HBO shows usually don't have to worry about cancellation because they are part of a premium network that showcases its programs to those who have paid a subscription fee. Therefore, they allow their shows chances to better themselves or build their audiences over time because the programs have the potential to be a lot denser and edgier due to their limited restrictions and uncut showings.
John from Cincinnati has become the outlier in that theory for its lack of viewership was what destroyed it. Many were afraid that Milch would never be given another chance, but HBO threw him another bone...unfortunately this bone didn't last too long either.
As of yesterday, this sad story has traveled through every crevice of cyberspace. Between the beginning of season 1's production back in 2010 until this past Tuesday, three horses have died on the set of David Milch's new HBO drama, Luck. This drama, another ambitious and rather expensive Milch production, centered around a group of diverse characters that were loosely related by their connections to the Santa Anita racetrack in California.
The show's pricey nature most likely comes from the talented cast and crew working on the show. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, and Nick Nolte among many other regulars and high-profile guest stars with director Michael Mann and writer Eric Roth serving as executive producers. Directors Philip Noyce, Terry George, Allen Coulter, and Brian Krik have also lent a creative hand to some episodes making Luck one of the few television shows to have an already stacked cast with many credited people behind the scenes.
The series featured a great deal of work with horses and featured an intense horse race as the centerpiece for each episode. At the season's start, HBO immediately renewed it for a second season, and though two mortal accidents had occurred on the set during the first season's production, the crew didn't foresee the effects of a third.
On Tuesday, while shooting the second episode of season 2, a third horse, just after being checked on by a veterinarian, reared and flipped over, smashing its head against the stable wall. The vet decided that human euthanasia was the correct course of action, just as it was with the horse back in 2010 and the one that followed in 2011. Uproars eventually brought HBO and the team behind the show's inception, Milch and Mann, to a final decision: To cancel all further production on Luck. (To read a more in-depth summary of Luck's cancellation, read Daniel's article here.) Despite its renewal by HBO, Luck will conclude after the final two episodes of season 1 premiere, and then it will be over. Having been cancelled after the renewal and beginning of production on season 2, Luck becomes Milch's third HBO show in a row to be cancelled without a proper, definite series finale.
So we have one show cancelled due to poor ratings, another to poor critical reviews and audience reception, and third because of tragic accidents that occur on set. Maybe Milch is in fact cursed.
What is more likely is that Milch is just way too ambitious and too good at what he does. Setting the series of unfortunate events that led to Luck's cancellation aside, The Hollywood Reporter notes that Luck was averaging about 625,000 viewers weekly despite being adored by critics. This was what made HBO's decision to go forth with a second season so surprising in the first place, but they were going to give the show the chance that they gave The Wire: an opportunity to gain popularity (The Wire is far more popular now than it was when it was on and many will claim that it's one of, if not the, best American TV drama of all time).
With Deadwood, Milch knew exactly what he was doing and fans will attest to that, but HBO decided that it was getting the ratings that could not justify it finishing out its proposed four seasons. John from Cincinnati was simply way above the heads of television watchers, let alone HBO die-hards. Milch, as a result, has become the prime example to realizing that ambitious and original television programming definitely has the technical and aesthetic merits to succeed, but there are many other factors that play in to the deconstruction of a TV show, even if it's on HBO. Hence, David Milch, understanding the forthcoming use of a cliché, is definitely in need of some luck.
Milch's claim to fame is NYPD Blue, a network cop drama that ran for 12 full seasons and overlapped with the creation of Deadwood, but Milch has been unable to strike gold twice. The longest any of his newer shows ran was a third of NYPD Blue's total. I have made it no secret that I love Luck, my weekly recaps have always been very enthusiastic and resound with positive vibes. I frequently recommend it so that it wouldn't end the same way as Milch's previous efforts, but regardless of who decides to climb aboard the Luck train now, increased viewership won't bring back the horses.
Milch's passion project has reached a sad end and I will say that it truly is a shame that we will never see the completion of Milch's vision. There is a continuing story of Joey Rathburn, Walter Smith, the Degenerates, Ronnie, Leon, Rosie, Gus Demitriou, Mike Smythe, Claire LaChea, and, of course, Ace Bernstein that we will never get to see. However Milch decided to end season 1 will be the best we can ask for. As unfortunate as it is, through examination of his track record, something was going to get in the way of Luck's success.
I look forward, as I'm sure many others do as well, to the next David Milch project and a future collaboration between Milch and executive producer Michael Mann. Thankfully, we can all find solace that Luck will survive as a cult classic, categorized with other "One Season Wonders" like Terriers, Freaks & Geeks, and Firefly. And looking at what David Milch has provided for us as viewers, I can honestly say, Thank You and "Wait to Go!"
Be sure to look out for my recaps of the final two episodes of Luck which premiere this coming Sunday and next Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m.