Over the last two weeks, as attention has been hyperfocused on the dwindling and riveting final episodes of Breaking Bad, AMC has made a series of announcements about their biggest hits that have gone from delightful to off-putting. Better Call Saul, a spinoff of Breaking Bad? Great idea! Fans want more of the show, but the central story is nearing its natural conclusion, so what a fabulous way for it to live on! Then yesterday came word of a spinoff of The Walking Dead. Well, that makes a certain amount of financial sense — the show’s super popular, and there’s no reason another related zombie show couldn’t happily coast off that for a few seasons. But then came today’s news that the final season of Mad Men will be split in two, with one seven-episode batch airing in the spring and the second seven episodes airing in 2015. 2015. AMC, allow me to quote Super Troopers: Desperation is a stinky cologne.
Just a few years ago, AMC was flying high. It was the little network that could, the network poised to be the next FX or HBO, the next reliably good home to interesting, provocative dramas. Mad Men was the toast of the town, then Breaking Bad was as critically beloved as a show can be. Rubicon was a bit of a chore, but just as its first (and only) season ended, The Walking Dead raked in viewers. Three for four! And that new show The Killing looked pretty good, too!
But The Killing got canceled (twice), Hell on Wheels is a bore, Breaking Bad’s about to be a thing of the past, and Mad Men is nearing its own finish line. The network’s great hope Low Winter Sun is bombing popularly and critically, and none of the network’s unscripted fare has captured the popular imagination. Whereas AMC once had the most impressive out-of-the-gate run on television, now it appears to be on a losing streak, and so to rapid-fire blurt out three attempts to milk their biggest successes is to paint an image of a flailing network that is out of ideas. That may be an unfair takeaway: They also have original projects in the works, one about a Revolutionary era cabbage farmer, and the other about the rise of computer culture in Texas in the eighties. And their track record is based on a very small sample size: In AMC’s “quality TV” era, there have only been seven scripted dramas. And yet, if Mad Men has taught us anything, perception is everything.
Coming now, as Breaking Bad is breaking the Internet with each final-countdown episode, the oppressively stupid ads for Low Winter Sun seem especially grating, and each seems to set off another round of eye rolling in life and on Twitter. The revived version of The Killing brought back the show’s least interesting aspects rather than its early, compelling incarnation — setting off a second round of “thank God this got canceled” when it was, of course, canceled again. Double the bad press!
So now we’ve got two spinoffs and a protracted end game to think of as the future for AMC. Maybe these new shows in the pipeline will be great. And maybe Mad Men will be able to stave off any dragging-this-out-too-long backlash. But it’s not like AMC is a well-oiled machine here: The network has repeatedly butted heads with its creative talent, going so far as to order a fifth season of Mad Men without a deal with Matt Weiner in place. TWD is on its third showrunner in four seasons. From conflict grows conflict, friends.
AMC needs to be careful as it goes forward. Because if it isn’t able to become the new favorite-show factory, Netflix is off to a decent start …