Through the grace and might of their past skill and good luck, AMC has transformed from a repository for grey-tone cinema into a source for some of the best television drama in the history of the medium. But as Breaking Bad sprints to its end – with Mad Men right behind it – is AMC in trouble?
The last few weeks paint a portrait of a network in transition. Despite heavy promotion, Low Winter Sun‘s ratings don’t bode well for a long and fruitful run; Hell on Wheels isn’t setting the world on fire; The Killing is dead, Mad Men‘s final season is being stretched out over two years, and AMC looks like it is going to ape the style of past successes, but not their substance, with two spinoffs – Better Call Saul and an expansion of the Walking Dead universe coming down the pike.
Back in 2008, it seemed as though AMC’s ambitions were less centered on maintaining the status quo. To borrow a phrase, “they were in the empire business,” but they were on the ground floor, with only a well-regarded but minimally watched period drama about advertising in their stable. AMC then gambled on a dark drama about cancer, drugs, crime, family, ego, power, and the slicked path to monstrous behavior, starring the guy from Malcolm in the Middle. In the time since, that gamble has paid out like a busted ATM machine for them – but they don’t seem to have the same taste for adventure now, as the network is green-lighting safer material that has failed to light a spark in the way that their past risks have.
Breaking Bad had a novel concept that unfurled to reveal its true mastery, but the Saul Goodman prequel spin-off isn’t likely going to be as novel and won’t be blessed by a lot of carryover between the Breaking Bad writing staff and the Better Call Saul writer’s room.
[Breaking Bad Spoilers Follow]
Is there an appetite for more and an affection for Bob Odenkirk’s character? Of course, and hit shows have been spawned from far less – but can’t we walk away from the table satisfied for once? Like a dog with a trash can full of food, we eat until we make ourselves sick or pass out when it comes to our beloved shows and movies; but would it be so bad if Saul Goodman disappeared into the exhaust cloud of a vacuum cleaner repairman’s mini-van? Would it be so bad if there were lingering questions, and something left unsaid about his beginnings?
I know that Saul Goodman is a Jedi, I don’t need to know all about his Midi-chlorians.
Besides, this is a character with a complete arc. A broad character and a weasel of a man, who at long last saw Walter White for what he is: mad, weak, and powered only by violent fantasy, selfish motives, and a barrel of money. Saul Goodman said no to that man – finally – and parted gracefully. When the curtain falls, that may be the best ending that any character on this show is afforded – and yet that perfection may be undone or, rather, undermined by his spinoff show.
The idea of a psuedo-second incarnation of AMC’s less critically adored but higher-rated zombie drama, The Walking Dead, seems grand on its face – but is this AMC messing with a good thing that can’t be easily repeated?
Greg Nicotero is an unrivaled genius when it comes to creating zombies, but this is not a show about zombies, but rather, it is a show about about survival, the monsters that desperation conjures, and Rick Grimes, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, Maggie, Carl, and the others. The characters are what keeps us coming back, but AMC seems to think that they can take this concept and recreate it with new characters and other stories about survival, even though last season’s Woodbury heavy episodes lacked the punch of the ones featuring the main cast.
Despite that, you can see how this would be appealing to Walking Dead concept creator, Robert Kirkman. Chained to a blueprint created by his hand, there are always complaints when Walking Dead the TV series diverges from the comic book – something it has to do, and something it does often. For Kirkman, the Walking Dead spin-off is a chance to explore the world that he created without as many pre-established boundaries, but can both shows be serviced equally, or could AMC’s most important show suffer?
There’s also the question of timing: The Walking Dead “companion series” wouldn’t air until 2015, right around when The Walking Dead will enter its sixth season.
Typically, a TV show will get more expensive as it ages. An actor’s status can be elevated by these shows and they can get more opportunities elsewhere, thus granting them leverage in salary negotiations or an excuse to leave. Writers leave too; they start their own shows or simply move on to other projects – and all of a sudden, a show starts to feel very different, ratings start to fall, and critics start to chip away at these once beloved titans. Look at ER, The West Wing, Dexter or True Blood for examples of what that looks like.
Maybe we don’t need to worry about AMC and Robert Kirkman robbing Peter to pay Paul. Maybe the Walking Dead spin-off is actually the main series’ much cheaper eventual successor. That’s not to say that The Walking Dead is fated to die in 2015 so that this show might live, but it doesn’t seem like AMC likes expensive things, and at that point, The Walking Dead will likely be a more expensive thing.
Whether AMC is simply cheap, or sadly limited is a matter of perspective, but reputations matter, and AMC’s is decidedly mixed as the money issue has always hovered around the numerous controversies that have popped up between the network and the vaunted triumvirate of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead.
These controversies – which involve budget cuts, creator exits, and slashed episode orders – are as much a part of AMC’s history as their successes have been (thanks to the frequency with which these fights have spilled out into the public square) but could they also damage the network as it moves forward?
“With FX, Showtime, HBO, Starz, Cinemax, A&E, TNT and others to sell to, it’s a real question now why good show runners should sell to AMC?”
With AMC’s decision to siphon off of both Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead with spin-offs, the frustrating postponement of the Mad Men conclusion across two half seasons, and the network’s recent development losing streak, one has to wonder if we are seeing other showrunners ask themselves that question.
Breaking Bad‘s series finale airs Sunday September 29th and The Walking Dead returns to AMC on Sunday October 13th.
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