HBO was no longer willing to gamble on expensive, low-rated show

Let’s take everyone at their word and stipulate HBO and the producers opted to pulled the plug on “Luck” because of the accidental deaths of three horses during the show’s production.

As Columbo would say, just one more thing: Can anybody picture a scenario where a similar problem would have triggered the abrupt cancellation of the channel’s genuine hits “True Blood” or “Game of Thrones?”

Programs and people disappear in television all the time. Failure far outweighs success. That’s why we’re programmed to be skeptical when anything exhibiting signs of life goes away prematurely: While journeyman are readily sacrificed, stars are pretty close to indestructible unless they torpedo themselves.

The media and entertainment industries operate under such a two-tiered star system perhaps more brazenly than any other field except pro sports, where the parallels are striking, and sobering. Take the New York Knicks, controlled by the Dolan family, which also owns Cablevision. Faced with pouting and selfishness by franchise star Carmelo Anthony, the owners bravely decided to let his coach, Mike D’Antoni, resign.

If the Dolans were in charge of CBS or Warner Bros. Television, one suspects Charlie Sheen would currently be overseeing “Two and a Half Men.”

Then again, CBS’ decision to dismiss the highly paid star of a major hit — reluctantly, belatedly, after multiple chances and no shortage of terrible publicity — clearly ran counter to the norm. Stars and winners might have to make apologies (even if they’re of the half-assed variety, a la radio titan Rush Limbaugh), but if they’re deemed vital enough to greasing wheels of the gravy train, owners and bosses generally make allowances.

The “Desperate Housewives” trial, to cite another recent example, yielded charges and counter-charges of diva behavior, but the truth is Nicollette Sheridan never occupied a truly signature role on the show. Meanwhile, all the principals are still there — sniping and photo-shoot snafus notwithstanding — as the ABC series grinds toward the finish line after eight seasons.

Speaking of finish lines, that brings us back to “Luck,” a show that — despite reasonably good reviews, given its impenetrable nature — clearly didn’t click with HBO subscribers, appearing to leave many scratching their heads. Yet with all the marquee talent involved, the pay service quickly announced a second season, which is why suspicious minds viewed the horse deaths as an excuse to euthanize an expensive, underperforming series.

If so, the network would have actually traded one juicy story — a series with big names like Dustin Hoffman getting axed — for another, regarding the treatment of animals on movie and TV sets. It’s hard to fathom an unqualified hit meeting the same fate.

By contrast, for true thoroughbreds, there are always plenty of second and third chances, for everyone from the late Michael Jackson to Roseanne Barr, who is plotting a return to primetime via an NBC pilot despite a tumultuous stretch in her eponymous ABC sitcom that left dozens of comedy writers experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In fact, fragmentation of the media has made even potentially problematic stars more viable, if not to their original employer than to somebody. Small wonder Roseanne already turned up playing herself in a strange Lifetime reality show, “Roseanne’s Nuts,” while Sheen quickly found another gig starring in an FX sitcom, “Anger Management,” due this summer. Moreover, Brett Butler — who nearly gave Roseanne a run for her money, eccentricity-wise, while starring in “Grace Under Fire” — has been cast in a recurring role.

Of course, the fact FX and production company Lionsgate were eager to hop into bed with Sheen so soon after the “Men” mess has already drawn criticism, with the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum concisely articulating reservations among “those of us who disapprove when abusive addicts are rewarded with meaty creative opportunities.”

There’s nothing new about that, but there is something wrong with it.

Still, let’s not be naive. The bottom line is weathering missteps comes much easier for those standing in the winner’s circle — holding the equivalent of weighted dice and “get out of jail free” cards — than for also-rans. Which explains why “Luck” appeared to be a misnomer, in more ways than one.

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