You don’t need to be a devoted viewer of The Walking Dead to know that the surest way to stop a monster’s relentless approach is to destroy its brain. This advice is not applicable in real life, of course. AMC, The Walking Dead‘s cable home, is living proof that playing dumb is the surest way to the winner’s circle.
At least that’s the way it seems today. Just two weeks removed from the celebratory clatter of Breaking Bad‘s finale — an episode that drew a series-record 10 million viewers, to say nothing of Heisenbergian levels of advertising revenue — AMC is basking in the demographic-devouring supremacy of The Walking Dead. The Season 4 premiere drew a staggering 16 million viewers this past Sunday, a number that isn’t just nuts for cable (although, as the highest-rated scripted show in basic cable history, it’s plenty nuts), it’s straight macadamias for the industry as a whole: With fully half of the audience in the advertiser-craved 18-49 age range, The Walking Dead‘s premiere is now the most-watched broadcast in that demo in 2013.1 Make no mistake: These are ratings any network boss would eat his family to duplicate — whether he was infected or not.
So why is the smell of rot and putrefaction emanating so strongly from AMC’s corporate offices this week? The answer is a familiar one: hunger. Nothing stimulates the appetite for success like success and, apart from The Walking Dead, it’s clear to all that AMC is well and truly starving.2 Breaking Bad, despite Jeffrey Katzenberg’s best efforts, is gone for good. The Killing is finally, mercifully, dead. Hell on Wheels came grinding to an ugly halt. (If a show falls on a Saturday night, does anyone hear it? Answer: No.) And Low Winter Sun set so disastrously that daylight seems further away than ever. Despite the frantic goalpost-moving of a cynical network, Mad Men will have to end someday. The inevitable creative crash can be delayed for only so long. Two years ago, when The Walking Dead debuted to a then-gangbusters 5.4 million viewers, The Shield creator Shawn Ryan told me it was cable TV’s Jaws moment, a game-changing event similar to what happened to American cinema in the 1970s, when character-driven storytelling suddenly gave way to special effects and spectacle. He was right in the sense that every channel immediately started paddling faster in an attempt to swim with such a huge and lethal shark. But how and why did AMC let the rest of its lineup crumble into so much chum?
To answer this question, one needs to consider how we got here in the first place. In the mid-2000s, AMC was American Movie Classics, just one of dozens of faceless cable networks eating up space on your ever-expanding programming grid and regurgitating random airings of recycled content. It was the place to watch Goodfellas at two in the afternoon and, if you were lucky, again at two in the morning. It was a way station, a channel between here and there, especially if “here” was HBO and “there” was the long list of programming available on demand. Thanks to what are known as carriage fees, merely existing on basic cable can be profitable. But to cash in, it’s necessary to stand out. Original programming, especially the kind watched by those aged 18 to 49, can demand higher advertising rates and, eventually, higher carriage fees from cable operators loath to drop must-see channels. And so, toward the end of the last decade, AMC’s executives began to seek out what they termed “complementary” programming, scripted series that would slide in perfectly between airings of classic films and add structure and, ideally, a little bit of sizzle to what had been an utterly forgettable schedule.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The success of The Sopranos not only kicked off a Golden Age of TV, but also a Golden Age of TV scripts. The only problem was that, outside of HBO, FX, and, to a degree, Showtime, there weren’t all that many channels interested in funding them. This buyer’s market3 allowed AMC to binge itself on scraps left dangling from a groaning banquet table that had been set for someone else. Mad Men was the script that got scuffling sitcom writer Matthew Weiner a job on The Sopranos. When the latter series was about to end, show capo David Chase agreed to direct a Mad Men pilot for HBO, only to see the network back out at the eleventh hour. Enter Christina Wayne, a part-time screenwriter and newly minted AMC development exec, who walked the script straight from the reject pile all the way into the office of Rob Sorcher, then AMC’s head of programming.
Breaking Bad followed a similar circuitous path: It was passed over by every network in town, including, ultimately, FX, which put the project into turnaround after president John Landgraf decided the male antihero era was coming to an end. (In that, he was more than a bit premature.) An up-and-comer named Jeremy Elice had first noticed Vince Gilligan’s script while toiling away in the trenches at FX — and when Elice accepted a job at AMC he convinced his bosses to take a flyer on the meth business.
Long before their final seasons, AMC’s first two original series4 had secured their spots on TV Drama Mount Rushmore. And AMC found itself batting a thousand in a league of its own: No network in television history has ever experienced such out-of-the-box development success. But it’s worth noting that AMC didn’t have anything to do with developing either show. And the splash made by Mad Men and Breaking Bad created many ripples, many in the form of other no-name networks, from A&E to WE, deciding to quit treading water and start paddling around in scripted waters. This meant AMC could no longer float to the top on the backs of exceptional leftovers and would instead be forced to sink or swim on its own. Aside from a certain monstrous hit (to which I’ll return in a moment), the results haven’t been pretty. Designed to complement the network’s deep bench of conspiracy thrillers, AMC’s first in-house series, Rubicon, drove itself mad and its audience to boredom when it debuted in 2010. It was a show that had all the signifiers of a prestige viewing experience — a rich, sumptuous visual style; an overarching sense of menace; a pace akin to a slug circumnavigating an apple dipped in molasses — but none of the content to match. Problems existed off-camera as well: Creator Jason Horwich was fired after the pilot,5 leaving Henry Bromell, an Emmy-winning industry veteran, to make do as best he could. It wasn’t nearly enough. Rubicon was a compelling idea that, when strung out over 13 aimless hours, revealed itself to be nothing more. It was canceled after a single season.
The tumult reflected the uncertainty reigning behind the scenes at the network. The names most closely associated with AMC’s early triumphs — Sorcher, Wayne, Elice, and Vlad Wolynetz — were all gone by 2010 due to various murky corporate machinations. Instead of relying on the established, industry-wide pattern of pitches, internal deliberations, and pilot orders, the new public faces of AMC, president Charlie Collier and senior VP Joel Stillerman, instituted a bizarre practice that came to be known as a “bake-off.” Under this plan, AMC’s brass would take over a Los Angeles–area hotel ballroom for a week and let the creative teams behind six would-be pilots do their best to woo them. According to New York Magazine, the participants in the 2011 bake-off brought planetary scientists to bolster the odds of a sci-fi series and a Formula One driver to help steer favor for a project set in the glamorous world of international racing. Neither show made the cut.6
It was, in essence, a Sterling Cooper pitch meeting with no free booze and about the same amount of class. Making writers, a famously sensitive lot, tap-dance for their supper in such a public way led to plenty of bruised egos and Final Draft folders full of resentment. Well-known writers wouldn’t participate at all. Worse, it led to disastrous decision-making because the types of things that can make a would-be series stand out in a Burbank Sheraton — Formula One drivers, say — contribute absolutely nothing to the time-honored combination of idiosyncratic inspiration and yeomanlike drudgery that has historically led to television excellence.7 It’s how AMC wound up with quality simulacra like The Killing and Hell on Wheels, pyrite shows that, like Rubicon, delivered the appearance of everything audiences have come to love about the Golden Age of Television without any of the value. It’s a misunderstanding of weight for importance and blood for heart that led the network to its creative nadir in Low Winter Sun, a well-intentioned cop procedural that played more like a savage Funny or Die parody of a grim decade of morally ambiguous grit. In the end, the bake-offs only highlighted the difference between scooping tasty morsels from other people’s plates and actually getting in the kitchen and cooking. (Hint: The latter is much harder. It’s why so many network execs get burned.)
If this all seems like an unnecessary history lesson in the wake of The Walking Dead‘s ratings, think again. Television development, like Chicago Cubs fandom, moves in two directions at once: hand-wringing over the past and blind hope for the future. Yesterday’s sins have more bearing on tomorrow than whatever might be happening today. And so AMC in 2013 is in the very strange position of having everyone compliment it on its delicious dinner party when, back in the kitchen, the cupboard is shockingly bare.
The network does have two pilots in production for 2014. Turn is a period piece about spies during the Revolutionary War. Halt & Catch Fire, the more promising of the pair, is also set in the past, but at least it’s a more recent and relatively unexplored version of it. Produced by Breaking Bad EPs Melissa Bernstein and Mark Johnson and starring the very talented Lee Pace (Lincoln) and Scoot McNairy (Argo), it’s set in Texas’s go-go “Silicon Prairie” of the early ’80s. (I’m picturing nerdy Don Draper, zooted on coke and megapixels.) But AMC has learned the hard way that strong pilots are no guarantors of future success, so rather than banking on the untested and unknown, the network is instead shucking and jiving like Roger Sterling at a Derby party, filling up dead air with cheap, congratulatory navel-gazing and grasping at spin-offs — the green-lit Better Call Saul, the inevitable Walking Dead companion show — in a frantic attempt to keep its competitive window open. Contemporary audiences may have a (diminishing) sense of network loyalty, but they can still smell desperation; Low Winter Sun wasn’t just rejected by Breaking Bad fans, it was actively resented for daring to share Walter White’s rarefied desert air. It seems increasingly apt that, earlier this year, AMC quietly changed its motto from the declarative “Story Matters Here” to the almost apologetic “Something More.”8
Still, The Walking Dead buys the network a lot of time, both creatively and financially.9 The primary source of its appeal is a horde of heavily latexed extras; as long as a rotting skull gets split in two at least once per episode, the ratings are unlikely to dip anytime soon. With “Violent Death” at the top of the call sheet,10 The Walking Dead is free to take wild creative chances, reboot itself every season, or — and this is, sadly, more likely — do nothing much at all. There had been reports that AMC had backed Robert Kirkman, the creator of the original TWD comic series, in his backroom power struggles with more experienced film and TV hands Frank Darabont and Glen Mazzara, leading to Scott Gimple being named the series’ third showrunner in four years. This latest change gave me nightmarish visions of fanboy indulgence allowed to run amok,11 but the first two episodes of the new season are actually the strongest the series has managed in years. The human characterization remains rotted-skin-deep, but the existential and emotional horror has been cranked up to 11. Last Sunday’s deeply disturbing guest turn by Kerry Condon demonstrated what the show is capable of when it allows a truly gifted actor to elevate what could otherwise be a gruesome wallow. It’s not something I find entertaining, but it’s undeniably infectious.
As anyone who survived high school can tell you, being popular is rarely the same thing as being smart. Yet, for a time, AMC appeared ready and able to be both. Now it finds itself lapped creatively by FX and Showtime and outclassed by its own stepchild, Sundance Channel. AMC was once touted as the next HBO, but it’s the latter that has been able to perfect the strategy of financing high art with lowbrow thrills. (One Game of Thrones pays for a whole lot of Girls.) There’s certainly no shame in staggering forever forward, attempting to pull fresh meat off picked-over skeletons. I’m just not sure there’s much future in it, either.