“Luck,” Causation, and the Complex Computation of Mixed Motivations

Was it good luck, or bad luck?

HBO has announced that it is cancelling “Luck,” its well-reviewed series about corruption in the sport of professional horse-racing. Why? Well, that’s an interesting question.

The immediate impetus for the decision was the death of a one of the horses used in the series. It was the third horse to die, so the announcement took the form of a sensitive and humane decision based on concerns for the animals. “While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future,” HBO’s statement said. “Accordingly, we have reached this difficult decision.”

I was initially impressed, but a couple of things about the move, which seemed uncharacteristically ethical by show business standards, bothered me. “Luck” was much-praised but low-rated, despite a cast headed by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte and a production team headed by respected film director Michael Mann. Though it had been renewed for a second season, some felt that the renewal was dictated by a corporate decision not to embarrass its Hollywood royalty.

The third horse death caused PETA to pounce, but all accounts indicate it was just bad luck for “Luck.” After the first two deaths, which occurred after staged races for the series, safety procedures had been tightened and upgraded. The last horse  unexpectedly reared up while it was being led to its stable, fell backwards and injured itself fatally. So what if this brought PETA out of the woodwork? A protest by PETA, which would be inevitable if the horse caught a cold or was seen carrying an unattractive jockey, would be a valid reason to keep shooting the series, if only to avoid giving these ethics-challenged fanatics any further encouragement. Hollywood has been making movies using horses for over a hundred years, and animal safety measure have evolved into a routine. At the same time, producers know accidents can and will happen. It is hard to understand how a group of experienced film-makers could embark on a pricey project about horse-racing and recoil in horror at either animal casualties or the prospect of having to battle animal rights activists. As the robot on “Lost in Space” was fond of saying, “It does not compute.”

At The Daily Beast, Jace Lacob did have a computation, and a cynical one:

“However, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that, had the ratings for Luck been significantly higher, HBO probably would have found a way to move past the unfortunate animal deaths. “Let’s just say that had Marcel the Monkey been killed during production of Friends,” tweeted the Hollywood Reporter’s Matt Belloni, ‘the show would have gone on.'”

It may be cynical, but I agree with him. I don’t see “Luck” being cancelled if HBO didn’t have the added incentives of saving boatloads of money and allowing everyone involved with the show to seem animal-friendly. TMZ raised an eyebrow at the fact that the cast’s call sheet for Wednesday didn’t mention the death of the horse, but did emphasize “Don’t forget to turn in your NCAA brackets … by 7PM tonight!” Indeed, if the tragedy really shook the production to its core, one would think that it might have superseded March Madness.

Thus we are again in the murky realm of mixed motivations, where there is an ethically valid and an ethically questionable or non-ethical motivation for an act. If it is the former, the conduct is laudable. If it is the latter, then the conduct is still acceptable, but the stated explanation for it may be a lie. And if it is a little of both?

The computation is a bit like the problem of causation in tort and criminal law. If, as in a real case, a wife brained her husband with a frying pan, fracturing his skull, and while he was sitting stunned and bleeding in his car, a mugger hit him over the head with a crow-bar, killing him (yes, this is the definition of “having a bad day”), who is guilty of murder, the wife or the crook? In the “Luck” scenario, there are several ways of looking at HBO’s decision:

  • HBO re-upped the series, but planned on finding a face-saving way to back-out later. The horse’s accidental death was just the ticket, but if it hadn’t been that, HBOwould have found something else.
  • HBO felt it was stuck with “Luck,” until the death of the horse created a lucky out. “And the best part is,” said a publicity flack,” “we look all humane and stuff!” What Luck!
  • HBO was prepared to go forward with Season Two, but wavering due to the expense and low ratings. The horse’s death, and sincere concern for the animals’ safety, finally tipped the scales.
  • HBO was excited about the continuation of the series and felt it would eventually become a winner, but was so heart-broken at the third equine death that it cancelled the series anyway.

Your guess is as good as mine (or Lacob’s), but I think we can all agree that the last is the least plausible of all.

Face-saving excuses when the real explanation is less flattering to the decision-maker don’t make an ethical decision unethical, any more than the reverse. They are lies, however. When the motivation is a mixture, though, I can’t find fault in a decision to publicize an ethical reason and leave a more pragmatic, expedient or self-serving explanation unsaid. As with the unlucky guy and his twice-fractured skull, either blow might have done the job. What really matters is that he’s still dead.

R.I.P “Luck.”



2 thoughts on ““Luck,” Causation, and the Complex Computation of Mixed Motivations

  1. What stood out to me about this announcement was something I didn’t see you hit on.”Luck” is claiming deaths and injuries they sustained were less than that of the horse industry in general. If you’re safer than other people, then cancelling the show is actually endangering horses.

  2. Would they have stopped the show if Hoffman or Nolte had broken their sorry necks?! If PETA wants to worry about horses, they should worry about the broncoes still in the wild. Those are the ones in the greatest danger.

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