Hold your horses: HBO has cancelled its little-watched David Milch/Michael Mann drama Luck, citing safety concerns for the equine actors used in production of the series. The network and producers announced the stunning decision just hours after news that a third horse had died during production of the show Tuesday, and the Los Angeles Times reported that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was “moving forward” with a complaint about the show. The network’s statement Wednesday insisted HBO had “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.” Still, the network continued, “Accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future. Accordingly, we have reached this difficult decision.” While there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of HBO’s statement, it’s also worth noting that the decision to pull the plug on Luck was perhaps made somewhat easier by the fact that the show has been a massive Nielsen underperformer.
As Vulture reported last month, the series has been struggling to draw more than 500,000 viewers most weeks. That’s a small number, even by premium cable standards (HBO reaches far fewer homes than commercial cable and broadcast networks). While the network clearly had the will and resources to continue the show — production on season two was already underway — it’s hard to see how the low numbers and mixed critical reaction (many, many positive notices interspersed with some notable detractors) didn’t factor into HBO’s decision to not find a way forward for Luck. (Totally riffing here, but couldn’t a combination of stock footage and CGI have dramatically lowered the risks for the horses?) Milch and Mann issued their own statement Wednesday in which they tried to put a forward-thinking spin on the news: “The two of us loved this series, loved the cast, crew and writers. This has been a tremendous collaboration and one that we plan to continue in the future.” An HBO rep said the net wasn’t commenting beyond the statement it released.