The number of cable networks programming original, scripted programming has exploded in the last five years. (Yesterday, BET told us all about how it was finally launching a scripted bloc, which debuts on Tuesday.) But for the most part, those networks are chasing niches that the main broadcast networks are already chasing or niches that the major networks have abandoned. Think of how USA programs mostly light action dramas, or how Disney and Nickelodeon have picked up the torch ABC’s TGIF lineup dropped. The general idea most TV critics and fans have is that cable is the place for quality TV, but cable’s no better than broadcast, really. It’s just that the economic realities of the industry have created a few places where it’s financially advantageous to put on a low-rated but critically acclaimed series that will act as a loss-leader for everything else on the network. AMC almost certainly loses a lot of money putting Breaking Bad on the air, but the show’s critical cachet is attractive to advertisers, and that makes it easy for AMC to sell ad bundles. Buy a few ads on Breaking Bad, then buy a few more in the umpteenth reairing of some “classic” movie, which is how the channel actually makes its money.
HBO was the network that began this tradition, of course, which first broke through into the mainstream with The Sopranos. Since then, AMC, FX, and Showtime have joined the pay cable giant in the realm of interesting programming, while cable upstart Starz has made rumblings of trying to get into the game as well in recent years. On the last day of the cable presentation at TCA press tour, three of these five networks presented their spring slates (FX waits to go next week, while Showtime gets wrapped in with corporate parent CBS), and that’s to say nothing of numerous other networks doing interesting things here and there that also presented, including IFC, A&E, and (yes) Lifetime. And yet the day may have been stolen by America’s favorite Draper, Kiernan Shipka.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
AMC was the first of the cable heavyweights to appear. The network had a tremendous 2010, seeing ratings gains for Mad Men and Breaking Bad and discovering its first breakout hit in The Walking Dead. Sure, they canceled Rubicon, but even that show got good notices, for the most part. As such, the network could afford to be a little cocky, saying that Mad Men would be back for a fifth season when a deal to bring the show back still hasn’t been officially closed (and here's the part where I remind everyone that it seems incredibly likely the series won't be back until January 2012) and bragging about how awesome its new Western, Hell On Wheels, is without showing us even the briefest bit of footage. Still, we bought it because this is AMC, and we’re suckers for Don Draper and Walter White.
AMC’s show pony for the spring was the moody new crime thriller The Killing. I haven’t seen the full thing (an online stream the network sent out to critics has proved ridiculously hard to make work), but what I have been able to gather from what I could get to load and a cut-down version of the pilot AMC showed before their session looks stark and desolate, blending the show’s Scandinavian roots (it’s based on a Danish thriller) with the accepted grammar of the “quality” cable drama. The panel that followed said all of the right things, while studiously giving absolutely nothing away. Showrunner Veena Sud (AMC’s first female showrunner, for the network’s first show with a sole female protagonist) talked about how she knows who the murderer who committed the crime at the series’ center is and about how she’s diverging from the path set for her by the Danish series. (In general, we’re not going to check her on this because, well, how many of us speak Danish and can watch the original?) Series star Mireille Enos mostly stayed quiet while occasionally interjecting her thoughts, while other star Billy Campbell talked about sailing around the world on a boat. There’s nothing in The Killing that hasn’t been done before, but if Sud has been able to blend the helter skelter plotting of the original with the kinds of small, human moments she said interested her, this might be the best new show of the spring.
Starz dropped in for the afternoon, and honcho Chris Albrecht, familiar to many here from his years running HBO, actually gave us a mini executive session, answering our questions about why he canceled Party Down (apparently because comedy doesn’t fit the network’s brand at present, or something, though, of course, Party Down and every other comedy the network has programmed drew abysmal numbers) and what’s going to happen to Spartacus, now that star Andy Whitfield won’t be returning to the title role due to his ongoing struggles with cancer. (Albrecht confirmed that the role will be recast, though that saddens everyone involved.) Albrecht also bragged a little about the network’s new pilot development (including a show about Kelsey Grammer as a mayor and a show set in ‘60s Miami), setting the tone for Starz as a place that will do slightly more off-kilter stuff than the networks it wants to be like when it grows up but still a place that wants the brand of being a quality network. In short, Starz is the Fox in 1993 of quality cable networks.
The three shows the network brought varied in interest. This is the second TCA press tour Camelot has been to, and even though the network now hauled out some of the actors to answer questions, including Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green, the trailer for the thing looks ridiculously sedate, making the network’s choice to not offer us a full episode or two all the more suspect. The cast is great, and creator Chris Chibnall is a fine writer, but everything about this screams “overly reverential period piece.” While I could never get into Spartacus, meanwhile, the session for the new prequel to the series, Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena, was slightly more interesting, if only because the Whitfield news cast a pall over everything else and provided the instant news hook of the day, even though no one involved had anything to say beyond, “We’re recasting the role.” Gods Of The Arena won’t move the story forward (though producers Rob Tapert and Steven DeKnight promised the story momentum won’t let up when season two finally airs), but it will allow fans to delve more deeply into the backstories of several of their other favorite characters.
And then there’s Torchwood, revealed here to be Torchwood: Miracle Day. Despite some fear that the show Starz was making would be a remake or a reimagining, creator Russell T. Davies was on hand to reassure us that this is a continuation of the story begun in Britain, blending the kinds of big-budget storytelling U.S. networks can do with the kinds of tightly plotted storytelling U.K. networks can do. In short, he hopes to find some sort of best of both worlds approach. The series begins shooting Monday, so, of course, nothing was available in the way of footage, but Davies teased the new storyline for the show, involving the sudden immortality of everyone on Earth. The “older keep getting older, the dying keep dying,” Davies said, but no one actually dies. The series begins with Oswald, a convicted murderer and pedophile played by Bill Pullman of all people, failing to die after being lethally injected, then goes from there. John Barrowman will be back (though no one would say how), Eve Myles was on hand to tell us how much she’s enjoying Los Angeles (and its coyotes), and Mekhi Phifer will be the other American star. Even though we saw no footage, Torchwood was easily the winner of the Starz session, and its summer debut can’t come soon enough.
And then there was HBO. As with all things HBO, the network’s session offered up as subtext, “Fuck you. We’re HBO.” The swag bags were fuller, the food tables in back were chock full of goodies, and the network carried itself with its customary swagger, even when it was beaming in Paul Reubens in character as Pee-Wee Herman live via satellite. While the network’s TV movies, as always, looked promising (particularly the Curtis Hanson-directed chronicle of the beginnings of the recession, Too Big To Fail), the centerpieces were miniseries Mildred Pierce and Game Of Thrones. Pierce offered up the first extended look at footage, all tragicomic camp and Kate Winslet breast-beating, and it looked pretty entertaining, if you like that sort of thing. Todd Haynes seems just the right person to bring this to the screen, and he, Winslet (appearing via satellite), Evan Rachel Wood, and Guy Pearce all teased the story’s larger themes and its connections to modern day America.
Naturally, the biggest story of the day was the full panel for Game Of Thrones, but while this remains likely the most anticipated series of the year, the panel ended up being fairly sedate, perhaps because nearly everyone involved with the production has been available for an interview or round table one way or another throughout the last couple of days or perhaps because we still haven’t seen the pilot (though the network unveiled yet another trailer full of new footage—one I liked slightly better than yesterday’s footage—so at this point, we can probably start piecing it together in our heads). The panel hit the expected beats—George R.R. Martin’s books are great, the production was epic, etc., etc.—but nothing terribly unexpected or newsworthy happened. On the other hand, that may have as much to do with the fact that it feels as if the show has been on the air for five years, instead of getting ready to debut in April.
--You want premiere dates? We’ve got premiere dates. The Killing pops up April 3. Game Of Thrones will arrive April 17. Mildred Pierce will begin March 27. (Update: The original version of this piece listed the Mildred Pierce premiere date as March 29.)
--The rest of the day was turned over to other, far more random cable networks. This included hanging out with Toni Braxton and her sisters for some WE show they’re airing and listening to the disembodied voice of Fred Armisen, beamed in from New York to promote his new sketch show Portlandia on IFC. I’ve seen a couple episodes of Portlandia and found it fitfully amusing, though awfully slight, and I interviewed series co-creator and star Carrie Brownstein about it yesterday. It’ll be interesting to see what people make of the show.
--Other randomness included A&E’s Breakout Kings, which announced that it would import the character of T-Bag wholesale from its producers’ previous series, Prison Break, for an episode. The show had a pilot I found enjoyable in spots, but I do wonder if the premise isn’t too limiting for a long-run TV show, and I’m baffled by some of my colleagues seeming to genuinely miss Prison Break. Lifetime also turned up with a Heidi Klum-hosted show about kids saying funny things, offering a panel where Klum seemed to believe that the show was a true original, perhaps because she’s never heard of Art Linklater or something. The network also promoted a made-for-TV movie about the Amanda Knox case, starring Hayden Panettiere as the embattled American student convicted of murder in Italy. Despite all involved trying studiously to avoid discussing whether or not they thought Knox was guilty (including Panettiere, who probably had to decide what she thought to play the girl anyway), Marcia Gay Harden made the panel intriguing enough anyway, particularly via coining the phrase “devil sex bullshit.” Lifetime’s reel of its dozens upon dozens of programs also featured what appears to be a show where Molly Parker is in some sort of Gilmore Girls-y relationship with her daughter. I approve.
--Finally, there was Hallmark, offering up the kinds of gooey, safe-for-consumption-by-all-ages movies that have become a staple of grandmothers everywhere. Fortunately, one of the network’s movies is Smooch, a weird, modern-day updating of the Frog Prince fairy tale but one that just happens to star Mad Men’s own Kiernan Shipka. Shipka was on hand to discuss the film, and we ended up lobbing far more questions to her than either of her adult co-stars (including Kellie Martin, who said that she’s advised Shipka to go to Yale). This ended up being fairly delightful because everybody likes cute kids, and most of us, at least, like Mad Men. Among other things, Shipka reiterated that she’s not allowed to watch Mad Men, talked about how nothing she does in acting is terribly scarring to her (Martin quickly reminded us that, well, this is because she’s 11), and actually said, “I don’t know if I have Bieber fever.” We’re a cold, cynical bunch, but all it took to melt our hearts was the mighty power of Sally Draper. (And, OK, the stuffed frog Hallmark handed out in connection to the movie.)