Lowpoint Number 1: The Shabbiness of AMC
In the past four years, AMC has branded itself as the purveyor of the finest original programming on television, with not even HBO matching the quality of AMC’s four great series: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and The Killing. Each of these shows is highly acclaimed by both critics and fans, each driven by great writing, high production values, and tremendous acting. Mad Men has won multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, while Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will not repeat winning Emmys for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor only because their show is ineligible this year. Most likely Jon Hamm of Mad Men will finally win a well-deserved Emmy.
While The Walking Dead has not received the awards notice of the others, it was only because of its six-episode first season run. It did, however, make scores of lists of the best shows of 2010. AMC’s track record has been so outstanding that for many TV fans the most anticipated new show of the fall of 2011 is its new series Hell on Wheels, which is set against the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century.
But all of this success is happening despite the programming executives at AMC. One would normally expect that programming executives would treat all those connected with such superb shows not merely with respect and gratitude, but something akin to awe. Not so with AMC. While no reports have surfaced of a conflict with the executive producers of The Killing, AMC has butted heads with the creators and show runners of their other three shows.
In a theme that is all too familiar, this is a story about money, and the insistence on the part of AMC to nickel and dime its flagship series and alienate cast and crew, all to make a little more profits. The cost to the AMC brand, however, has been huge. It’s too early to tell, but the AMC label might be so damaged at this point that creators of new series might shop their new projects to AMC only as a last resort.
Viewers and fans saw no Mad Men in 2011—possibly the most critically acclaimed series on TV—because AMC and Lionsgate (the studio that produces the show) engaged in a protracted dispute with show runner/creator Matthew Weiner. The conflict did not extend merely to how much money Weiner would receive, but to things that affected the quality of the show. For example, AMC insisted that all episodes be cut by two minutes for additional commercials and wanted to increase significantly the amount of product placement on the show. According to reports, Weiner won on the last issue, but made a major concession on the two-minute cuts. The Season Five premiere and finalé will air without the two minute cuts, while the rest of the season will have the extra two minutes of commercials. The DVDs, however, will show the full, uncut episodes, with the missing two minutes restored.
With Weiner and star Jon Hamm having signed new contracts, Mad Men would seem to have reached its final potential conflict between AMC and creators, but at this point one cannot put anything past AMC.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, had always intended for the show to end after a limited number of episodes. The story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s becoming a master crystal meth cook after being diagnosed with terminal cancer never felt like a show that could go on forever without losing narrative integrity. One can only applaud Gilligan having the fortitude to announce that the show’s fifth season will be its last. Is that too late for AMC to interfere with the series as it did with Mad Men? Not on your life!
Gilligan wanted the show’s final season to consist of as many as the middle three seasons (Season One was shortened by the Screen Writer’s Guild strike), 13 episodes. AMC had a different idea; six episodes should, in their opinion, be more than enough to wrap up the series. Gilligan and Sony, the studio that produces the show, actually shopped the final season of the show to other networks. Perhaps the latter was a negotiating ploy; perhaps it was a serious attempt to extend the life of the series to a proper conclusion. Luckily we’ll never know. AMC realized that its brand was not taking not merely a beating, but an extended public flogging. An agreement was reached to bring Breaking Bad back for a 16-episode final season.
Unbelievably, neither of these incidents represents AMC at its worst. This was reserved for one of the most absurd firings in the history of television.
One of the best new series of the fall of 2010—in my book the finest, since I am not quite the fan of Boardwalk Empire others are—was Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead, the Citizen Kane of TV zombies series, adapted from Robert Kirkman’s celebrated comic book series. AMC had some nervousness about how a zombie series would go over on television and so ordered only six episodes for its first season. But all seemed to be going well. The show had, by a considerable margin, the largest number of viewers of any AMC series to date and received considerable critical acclaim. Darabont showed that a show purportedly about zombies could be TV’s finest exploration of what it meant to be human.
Darabont attended Comic-Con in San Diego in July, and both he and his actors and Kirkman expressed their excitement over the upcoming season. All seemed bright on The Walking Dead.
Then came news that baffled everyone: AMC tersely announced Darabont was no longer attached to The Walking Dead. Of the several important film directors working on TV in the previous season (as discussed in Highpoint Number 2) Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) was the one most completely involved in his show. For several days no one knew what to think. There were reports that perhaps Darabont was not comfortable with the pace of television and was wanting to move on, which conflicted with how excited he had seemed at Comic-Con, only a few days prior to the announcement of his departure from the show.
Then Kim Masters in The Hollywood Reporter, first in their print edition and then online, broke the story that Darabont had in fact been fired, easily one of the most shocking stories in TV history (‘The Walking Dead’: What Really Happened to Fired Showrunner Frank Darabont, CNN, 10 August 2011). No network seemed capable of firing someone of Darabont’s stature. After all, The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most beloved films of the past 20 years and has long been ranked #1 by fans on IMDB.com for several years, now. As Masters explained, AMC’s relationship with The Walking Dead is different than with its other series: it owns the property. AMC also developed Mad Men, but it then sold it to Lionsgate, while Sony brought Breaking Bad to AMC.
But with all three series, a reckless and daredevil attitude towards saving money and increasing profits has endangered the artists’ integrity of its series.
Two suspicions arise.
One, could it be that AMC is not ready to be a long term provider of quality television? Breaking Bad will end next year, while Mad Men is moving towards its conclusion. The Killing had many outstanding qualities in its first season, but if it continues its reliance on misleading clues, it will almost certainly alienate viewers. It is, at best, a shaky franchise upon which to continue AMC’s success.
Two, AMC could have a much, much tougher time attracting exceptional series in the future. Potential creators and show runners are going to remember AMC putting the squeeze on Weiner to cut Mad Men by two minutes per episode, attempting to force Gilligan to trim the final season of Breaking Bad from 13 to six episodes, and firing Darabont for refusing to kowtow to their demands for substantial cuts in the budget.
My gut tells me that AMC is going to be a flash in the pan. A very bright, very memorable flash, but a flash nonetheless. While AMC briefly surpassed HBO and Showtime and every other network on TV for superb television, the corporate mentality is less that of creators than bean counters. One very rarely hears similar stories about HBO, the only network that has consistently produced series as good as AMC’s.