01/31/2012 01:59 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

Sex, Vice And Sin: The Small Screen Turns Ugly

Our search for interesting, unique TV characters seems to have dragged us into a mire of darkness, depression and vice. At this point, almost every critically acclaimed show on TV is about some form of grift -- porn, crystal meth, betting -- or other taboos. Our leading characters have suffered torture, electric shock therapy, have committed incest (or want to), and one of them's a serial killer. They're sick, too: they've been diagnosed with mental illnesses, or they go undiagnosed, they've got cancer, they've been paralyzed, or they're the last few people left after the zombie apocalypse. They are, in short, in pretty bad shape.

As a devoted fan of "Dexter," "Homeland," "Game of Thrones" and many of the other shows referenced above, I never thought I'd be complaining about this. But lately I find myself having to steel myself before watching a new episode. Something that should be a pleasure is slowly turning into ... not a chore exactly, but perhaps a bit exhausting.

Maybe this explains the large audience for Zooey Deschanel's brand of cute appeal. She's refreshingly cheerful. But it seems to me that for a while in the '90s, TV was home to characters that met a happy medium between bland and batshit. Monica, Ross, Rachel and co. were neurotic, not nuts. Seinfeld, Elaine, George and Kramer were self-centred, not self-destructive. Even our comedies have edged into edgy -- the crew of "30 Rock" are hardly normal, and Claire over on "Modern Family" is pretty tense.

As you can see, I'm not in the best frame of mind for a new David Milch drama.

The debut of his new one, "Luck," definitely left me feeling less than shiny and happy. Dustin Hoffman is giving a great performance as Ace Bernstein, and I'm sure we'll see him on award podiums this time next year. Cut from the Tony Soprano mould, he's a recently paroled felon with a hair-trigger temper and vengeance on his mind. Other characters include a smart-mouthed jockey, a quartet of greasy compulsive gamblers, a loan-sharking security guard, and a vaguely grotesque jockey's agent (played to the hilt by Richard Kind). There are a few nice folks here -- mostly of the feminine persuasion. Kerry Condon's ambitious exercise rider seems harmless enough, as does Jill Hennessy's large-animal vet. But overall, there is a preponderance of skeezy people in "Luck."

And despite my beef with skeeziness, and despite all of the sinning TV characters we've grown so accustomed to, "Luck" lost me before it even started. I have never much liked stories about horses. Real horses -- the strange state of nervousness-cum-peacefulness they live in, the warm animal smell they exude -- all that I have no issue with. But whenever horses turn up in literature or on screen, they are destined to be used, abused, starved or shot, all while plucking with mighty force on your heartstrings. And sure enough, with minutes left to go in the premiere, "Luck" treated us to a gory shot of a horse's leg breaking in mid-race, followed up by the mandatory touching euthanasia scene.

I'm not usually one to follow the exploits of PETA, but while researching "Luck" I stumbled on a release from the virulent animals rights group. According to them, two horses have already been injured badly enough during filming of this show to require euthanizing. PETA asks, plaintively, if an hour of television is worth the life of two horses. Feels like a sound argument, until you think about what horses do when they're not starring in David Milch shows. Are any of the things we ask horses to do -- race track, jump fences, give tourists sunset rides on the beach during their honeymoons -- worth a horse's life? In some ways, I'm tempted to say an hour of television is one of the more valuable things we ask horses to die for, and "Luck" isn't just television, it's HBO.

("Luck" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO/HBO Canada)