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Tim Goodman: In Defense Of Difficult Shows

Why HBO's 'Luck' and other series demand patience, effort.

Luck Gamblers David Milch - H 2012
HBO; Getty Images

Although HBO’s Luck received mostly favorable reviews, one of the biggest complaints tossed at its feet is that the series is difficult.

As in hard to understand. David Milch’s examination of the subculture of horse racing was confusing and sometimes indecipherable, people said.  Some even pointed to the relatively lackluster ratings as proof that the series missed its mark. But then HBO stepped in and renewed the series for a second season. All of this – the complaints, the ratings talk and the renewal – came after just one episode.

First off, is this what people are reduced to these days – whining about the difficulty of art in the culture? Second – hasn’t anyone been paying attention to HBO’s philosophy since, well, ever?

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Let’s start with the first issue. Yes, the pilot to Luck was difficult. You know what else is difficult? The first chapters of War and Peace. Also, great gobs of Remembrance of Things Past. Did you also know that diving in to William Faulkner can leave you wondering what the hell is going on?

This is not to say that Luck will ever be a masterpiece on those levels. Not at all. The point is that we live in a television culture where every element is either spoon-fed to us for easy digestion or hammered upon our heads like we were idiots. Even very good shows on network television do this.

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And for good reason. They are trying to appeal to as many people as possible to get ratings to make money on advertising. The assumption is that everybody knows this.

But then again, wasn’t everybody supposed to know that HBO (and Showtime and Starz) are not in that business? But in particular, HBO has a history and DNA that makes it very clear that the channel puts on mostly grown-up fare and doesn’t inherently worry about the ratings. It worries about quality. What it wants to do is assemble a line-up of exceptional programming that hopefully gets critical acclaim and Emmy nominations (and wins) and creates in the non-subscriber a feeling of being left out. It wants to curate quality so that you’ll subscribe. And once you subscribe, it wants to keep making such shows so you’ll believe there’s value in that subscription.

It’s a different business model, period. HBO’s biggest mistake with Luck was giving the pilot a sneak preview well before the season started. It should have known that Milch doesn’t make series that can be judged on one episode. And that the pilot for Luck was too dense for a one-off  sampling.

But HBO’s normal, laudable approach is to allow series creators like David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme) and, yep, David Milch (Deadwood, John From Cincinnati,  Luck), the freedom to make something great without needing to water it down for the masses. (Or, in the case of John and others, at least try to make something great.) It's why the channel renewed Enlightened -- it believes there's something unique at work there, despite so few people watching it. So whining about the difficulty of an HBO series makes no sense. It also means people have short memories. Because there’s no better example of a difficult series being ignored at first and then universally appreciated years later than The Wire. If you’ve forgotten that first season, stick in the DVD. Guess what? It’s difficult. Particularly the pilot. Simon introduces dozens of characters so fast you can’t follow who they are or what they do. In fact, one of the devices Simon uses to identify who’s who is film people walking into offices. If you don’t see their names and title etched on the glass doors, oh well.

And yet, The Wire is arguably the best drama ever made for television. When nobody was watching it, HBO didn't give up. And Simon didn't try to make it more digestible. 

Milch did a lot of dense storytelling on Deadwood, another all-time-great series as well. Brilliant films, novels, art – they can be difficult. They can be confusing. That should not be an argument against them – it should be a reflection of your personal limitations.

Of all mediums, television should get cut the most slack in this argument because  it’s an ongoing story. Viewers know that going in. The assumption – for series on channels like HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC  --  should be, “I don’t completely understand this world-view I’m being presented, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as it goes.” It's only those involved in mass-appeal entertainment who shout that this is wrong or foolhardy. But they're not interested in shows that aspire to be more than merely entertaining. They're trying to sell you soap.

Subcultures are not instantaneously familiar for the obvious reason. For people who haven’t been to the horse track, bet on the ponies or been around that environment, Luck will seem like a foreign world. But hell, trying to figure out the land-rights issue and why Lord and Lady Grantham were going to lose Downton Abbey wasn’t super understandable either.

If investing your time in unfamiliar subjects is too hard for you, if it’s too much of a commitment, then by all means watch network television instead. And stop whining, so the rest of the people who want to be challenged can focus.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com.

Twitter: @BastardMachine