Thursday, March 15, 2012

Luck and Exploitation

Lester (or Leo) shows Jerry the bad newsIn one of the last “Community Cards” columns I wrote for the Epic Poker blog back in February -- the now-seemingly-ill-fated Epic Poker blog -- I talked about the first four episodes of the new HBO show Luck, focusing in particular on the way the show was using poker.

Kind of interestingly -- or weirdly, some in the poker world might say -- the show appeared to be reversing a formula with which a lot of us in poker are familiar. Instead of showing a skilled poker player losing his money by gambling it away in games where his edge is less (e.g., casino games, sports betting, etc.) such as we were talking about just a couple of days ago, Luck has a character, Jerry, who is a brilliant horse racing handicapper take the money he makes betting on horses and recklessly blow it at the poker tables.

In fact, when it comes to showing truly “degenerate” behavior or “problem gambling,” those first episodes really confine it to Jerry’s lousy decision-making against a poker nemesis, an Asian-American named Lester in the first couple of episodes, then in what I assumed was a continuity glitch called Leo thereafter. Jerry runs into some bad luck in hands against Lester/Leo, but for the most part he’s simply a poor player, one whom even luck can only sustain temporarily.

HBO's LuckFor more specifics about hands Jerry plays and the way poker represents his “leak” against the backdrop of horse racing/betting, you can read my post, titled “The Pull of Poker in HBO’s Luck.” There I focus mainly on the subplot involving Jerry and his friends who in the first show manage to make a huge score at the track, winning a pick-six by following Jerry’s selections, with Jerry subsequently starting to run through his share at the loot by losing at poker.

There are about three or four other threads started in those initial episodes which I don’t get into in the column, nor do I really provide a lot of evaluative commentary on the show as a whole as I was mainly focusing on the way poker was being portrayed in those episodes.

I found the show somewhat engaging if a little slow-paced and overly complicated, plot-wise. Indeed, I couldn’t really imagine someone picking it up a few episodes in and wanting to watch, actually, except perhaps to see some familiar faces -- Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina -- inhabiting roles in another “high end” HBO drama that didn’t seem to compare favorably to obvious precursors like The Sopranos or The Wire.

The horse races were majestically shot and probably provided the only truly gripping moments during those first few episodes, other than brief ones when Jerry was butchering another poker hand, perhaps. Of course, I watched those scenes knowing already there had been two horse fatalities during the production of the show -- horses had broken legs during “races” and had to be euthanized -- which added another layer of anxiety when watching those scenes. One had died during the shooting of the show’s pilot back in 2010, and a second last year while they were making the seventh episode (which just aired for the first time last Sunday).

AHA disclaimersAs is the case for all films and television shows involving animals made in the U.S., the American Humane Association was on hand during Luck’s production. Interestingly, the usual disclaimer at the end of the pilot mentioning the AHA’s involvement omitted the usual “No Animals Were Harmed” statement. (Those are screen shots from the end of the first two episodes.)

In fact, near the end of that very first episode a horse in the show breaks its leg near the end of a race and has to be put down, a most unpleasant scene to watch in which I really felt Luck had swiftly edged over into exploitative territory.

I say that not just because of the context involving the actual death of horses during the show’s production, nor because I happen live with someone who owns horses and who has strong, negative feelings about the way horse racing often exploits them. It just seemed cheap to me, especially coming so soon in the series. In other words, at a point in the series well before any emotional investment had been made by the viewer, they opted to try to grab us with an utterly affecting scene of a horse being put down. Even setting aside the fact that a horse actually died while making the pilot, to be manipulated so brazenly didn’t endear me much to the show.

Having completed the initial nine-episode season, the show had already been picked up in January for a second season. However, this week came news of a third horse fatality on the set of Luck, and the response this time has been to shut down production altogether.

Poker players weren’t too happy with the way Luck seemed to be exploiting our favorite card game to help give one of its characters a dark, self-destructive side. I can understand that, but still was willing to go along with its “using” poker this way.

Jerry sees the bad newsAs we all know, people really do play poker badly, and it is a game in which bad players often do fool themselves into thinking they’ve got an edge when in fact they’re huge dogs. It’s okay, then, for a character in a drama to be similarly self-deluded, even if it might make poker seem a less noble pursuit than some of us might like.

But there’s simply no good rationale to support animals being harmed in the production of movies or television shows. Luck’s tagline -- “Leave nothing to chance” -- has an ironic ring now, given the risks that were taken during the show’s production. Am glad such chances won’t be taken going forward.

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