Date Posted: August 30, 2011
Print Edition: August 25, 2011
AMC, since their entrance onto the television scene with Mad Men in 2007, has been a revelation of renewed creative energy, and an alternative to powerhouse HBO, whose shows that put it at the top of the television world (Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Wire) were at the time either finishing up or finished. Building its reputation around confident, creatively gifted showrunners and their series, filled with iconic characters and moments of both quiet humanity and explosive plot development, AMC became a gravitational force, attracting critics and discerning television watchers alike. Their consistent success from then until very recently gave the station a brand identity of high quality programming; show after show displaying a similar sensibility for well-developed storytelling, attracting prospective showrunners and encouraging viewers to watch the channel’s entire oeuvre. But recent events have cast their lineup and its future in a new light.
Their first show and success, Mad Men, from Sopranos’ writer Matthew Weiner, is a combination of soap opera relationships, embittered nostalgia, and melancholy existence – with forays into comedy rarely handled so well in shows of its kind. However, it recently had its first patch of turbulence when messages from AMC proposed lowering the budget and increasing the advertising time of each episode. For a show so concentrated on packing its episodes with story developments, losing time and resources to do so would only impact the show negatively. A negotiation ensued, with Weiner winning out, ensuring the show’s fate would remain in his hands for three more seasons, but the new possibility that AMC could interfere and could compromise its programming in favour of corporate interests was a new threat.
While AMC never stopped being a business, its “story matters here” mantra and relative hands-off approach made the channel appear a shelter from network broadcasting with a larger potential audience than cable since they let creative talent do the work. Many words had been spent declaring basic cable as the place to be, but now it seemed that near perfect balance was threatened.
AMC’s second success, Breaking Bad, with its story of family upheaval and troubling compromise, underlined with ever-present tension, was a marvel out of the gate from former X-Files’ writer Vince Gilligan. As is usually the case with serialized shows, its length is a contentious issue. In interviews he had cited five seasons, maybe more as the course going forward, but recently, with the show in the middle of its fourth, AMC apparently proposed no more than a half season after this one to wrap things up. Whether the issue here was cost or creative differences, AMC was again meddling. The second round of negotiations within a year occurred, and to the relief of viewers, a final slate exceeding the usual twelve episode order was finalized. But again, the station seemed to not know how to approach such a volatile issue. Even worse was what followed with AMC’s third show, The Walking Dead, as Frank Darabont, film director and showrunner, was fired for reasons AMC refuses to divulge in detail; and this was their biggest show ratings-wise.
While AMC’s lineup is still comprised of some of the best shows on television, the behind-the-scenes workings are troubling. Going forward, will they continue to apply the same strategies to future shows, such as the upcoming Hell on Wheels? It is a great thing to see that their two best shows will be able to continue and end on their own terms, but it does not provide hope for the future. Additionally, they are no longer alone at the top: HBO has enjoyed a resurgence with shows like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and Treme, with David Milch’s Luck on the way. For the time being, AMC still has Emmy winners under its banner, but in five years, one wonders how the station will be able to thrive under leadership so lacking in consideration and tact for the quality of its product.