It took AMC six years to find a commercial success commensurate to the critical accolades earned by those twin towers of prestige television, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But in the early months of 2013, the network watched as The Walking Dead became the biggest show on television, a ratings-dominating force to be reckoned with that brought mass numbers of eyeballs to the once-lowly basic-cable movie channel—a significant number of which then stuck around to watch Chris Hardwick and friends dissect the zombie mayhem on Talking Dead.
It’s been a big year for AMC, but if network brass aren’t careful, it could also be its last big year: Matthew Weiner has intimated that Mad Men’s ongoing sixth season might be its second-to-last. And thanks to the press release that precedes tonight’s AMC upfront presentation, Breaking Bad has a visible endpoint: The final eight episodes begin airing August 11; barring any breaks in the action, that puts the finale date on September 29, 2013.
With that in mind, it appears the network is approaching the rest of the calendar year with caution. After floating the idea in January, AMC will grant Breaking Bad a Talking Dead-like follow-up, a half-hour chatfest called Talking Bad. However, that show will air a full hour after the latest life-destroying decision by Walter White and/or Jesse Pinkman—the better to insulate AMC’s newest scripted offering, the Detroit-set crime thriller Low Winter Sun. Bringing The Killing back for a third season suggests a bit of ballsy daring (at least to anyone who isn’t The New York Times’ Mike Hale), but AMC’s unscripted summer premières mark the return of cheaper series that make it easier to pay Jon Hamm’s salary (Small Town Security and The Pitch are back in May and August, respectively) or the types of docuseries that have been tested outside of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead’s Sunday-night stronghold: Profiles of quirky performer types (The circus-throwback vibe Freakshow gives way to traveling talent show Showville) and competition that might appeal to those advertiser preferred males ages 18 to 49. Taxidermy-centric Immortalized doesn’t join Comic Book Men or Freakshow in the release’s renewal notices, but Owner’s Manual—in which home-improvement personalities Ed Sanders and Marcus Hunt navigate heavy machinery, one with the instructions, one without—is geared to grab the attention of weekend warriors with disposable income. And that’s exactly the kind of thing the advertisers attending tonight’s presentation will want to hear.
Where the news from AMC most loudly says “We’re good with the ground we’ve broken, thanks” is in the network’s development slate, ripe with one-hour dramas predicated on ideas that have worked for outlets elsewhere on the cable dial. As a rejoinder to The Americans’ reworking of Mad Men’s identity themes on the opposite end of the Cold War, a pair of prospective series—the domestic drama Ashland and espionage-tinged The Wall—could offer Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys some primetime comrades. Elsewhere, the “futuristic cop” bug that bit J.J. Abrams and J.H. Wyman is buzzing around Ballistic City. And HBO’s success with Boardwalk Empire must look mighty tempting to AMC if it’s signed the writer of one of that series’ finest hours (“The Milkmaid’s Lot” scribe Rolin Jones) to an overall deal while also considering a Roaring ’20s period piece from one-time Mad Men writer-producer Dahvi Walker.
AMC’s path to success practically mirrors the progression and pacing of its Big Three series: Slow, steady, and assured, with a few big surprises along the way. The programming slate that’s about to be unveiled at the network’s upfront presentation definitely exhibits the “steady” part of that equation, like the early goings of a Mad Men season—or, less charitably, one of those “wait around and talk” passages of The Walking Dead. Will the network that blazed a wider path for TV antiheroes be content to coast off other people’s ideas for a brief period? Considering the big fall that Walter White set himself up for by rising up and showily flexing his muscles in the last batch of Breaking Bad episodes, AMC is already has in its possession a roadmap that doesn’t lead to long-term viability.
Other programming notes:
- He’s committed to flying his Nerdist flag over on BBC America, but Chris Hardwick just might end up being the face of AMC: The Talking Dead host is in the process of bringing his web series All-Star Celebrity Bowling to the network, marking its first sports-related programming since Mad Men’s uncomfortable celebration of the Kentucky Derby and other ugly Southern traditions.
- Judging by other shows in development, politics is currently a major blip on AMC’s radar: In addition to the capitalist/socialist tension beneath Ashland and The Wall, there’s also King, a drama set within the American Civil Rights movement—and executive produced by congressman-turned-TV-personality Joe Scarborough—and White City, which follows journalists and diplomats in Afghanistan. The docuseries Majority Rules would take a look at the American democratic process, while a yet-untitled project headed by FlashForward’s Tim Lea focuses on a family in a near-future U.S. that’s pushed to the brink of a second revolution. PROBABLY BECAUSE IT’S LOADED, OKAY?!
- As for a project that could tear a real-life family in two: If Cancelled is ordered to series, it will place cameras in six houses, the inhabitants of which will compete to earn big “ratings” or end up like Arrested Development, Brothers & Sisters, No Ordinary Family, and countless other non-family-related series that suffered the punishment alluded to in Cancelled’s title.