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Television

Column: From ‘Mad Men’ to zombie spinoffs: AMC has been trampled by its own revolution

Walking Dead
Is this the face of AMC? Spain’s Parque de Atracciones converted the year-round El Viejo Caseron maze into the Walking Dead Experience.
(Parque de Atracciones)

“Another ‘Walking Dead’ spinoff is confirmed; Danai Gurira says she’s leaving.”

A recent Times headline out of Comic-Con pretty much said it all: AMC is quadrupling down on zombies. At least one additional spinoff series (the first, “Fear the Walking Dead,” is now in its fifth season ) and three feature films appear to be turning what was once a television network into yet another “Walking Dead experience” — and Gurira is not the only one looking for other options.

Its lineup teeming with zombies, witches, demons and vampires, AMC — the network that started the revolution behind peak TV, digital disruption and far too many Funko pop figures — seems, if not to have given up the ghost, then at least given in to it.

“The Walking Dead,” “Fear the Walking Dead,” “Preacher,” “NOS4A2 ,” “A Discovery of Witches” (the last codistributed with sister network Sundance Now) — even the promising second season of “The Terror,” which deals with the actual horror of Japanese internment camps, does so with a little help from some type of craven spirit.

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As “Better Call Saul” approaches the events of “Breaking Bad,” all I can say is there had better not be a spinoff in which Saul turns into a vampire or Jesse is haunted by Walter and Gus.

Seriously. I mean it. Bob Odenkirk is pretty much the only thing keeping the network from being renamed American Monster Classics. No one loves monster TV better than me, but AMC is not a niche network — its legacy should remain tied to the grander ambitions of its original vision.

After all, it was only 12 years ago that AMC changed the world.

All those period dramas, brooding protagonists, rock star-like TV writers, even subtitles on network TV and nonpremium cable? AMC’s sexy, smart ‘Mad Men’ started it all.

In 2007, the network best known for old movies stepped out of its comfort zone, defying conventional wisdom that hourlong drama was dead, and with its hat-trick of “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” kick-started a revolution.

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“Mad Men” immediately became the most talked-about show in decades, with such a resounding cross-cultural impact that the New York Review of Books eventually felt obligated to unleash a “you’ve all been conned” diatribe. The show proved you didn’t need gangsters or HBO to make a prestige drama, that men really do look good in white button-downs and that first-night ratings were not the only way to judge success.

“Breaking Bad” turned the antihero trope (and Bryan Cranston’s comedic career) on its head, becoming a slow-grow hit that illuminated the importance of second-platform viewing and figuring out how a series should end before you start writing it. Then “The Walking Dead” shocked many in the now-watching world by refining the definition of “prestige” to include (rather than preclude) high ratings, while laying to rest any notion that genre television was kid stuff.

“Breaking Bad”
Dean Norris as Hank Schrader, left, and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in "Breaking Bad."
(Frank Ockenfels / Associated Press)

Together, they owned “what to watch” lists, recapping culture and magazine covers; “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” dominated the Emmys for years in nominations and awards. (Also noticeable was the Television Academy’s bizarre refusal to acknowledge “The Walking Dead” in the major categories.)

More important, their success helped spark a wildfire of scripted drama on a wide array of basic cable networks that had previously given no thought to such a thing. Talent that once worked exclusively in film began flocking to television. The broadcast networks, which, overrun by reality shows, had begun despairing of the hourlong drama, took heart and picked up their game.

For 10 years, everyone talked about nothing but television, with AMC at the dead center of the conversation.

Here are a few things that did not exist in American television 10 years ago: Binge-watching; recapping; scripted series on networks devoted to old movies, science and history; zombies; streaming services; popular series that end just because the story is done; film-franchise adjacency; shows that begin as miniseries and then continue indefinitely; multiplatform viewing; two concurrent versions of Sherlock Holmes; A-list film directors; television shows devoted to talking about television shows; live tweeting; micro-audiences; immediate remakes of British series; any remakes of European series; European series; subtitles; cord-cutting; horrific violence; series in which the cast stays the same but the story changes; series in which the title stays the same but the story and cast change; really good computer graphics; comedies more dark than funny; amazing international locations; an overabundance of stories characterizing the many ways in which television has changed in the past 10 years.

Nowadays, there’s plenty of dead in AMC’s lineup — in addition to “The Walking Dead,” “Fear the Walking Dead” and the forthcoming spinoffs, the network’s slate leans increasingly supernatural — but not so much talk.

“Lodge 49” has its fans, but only “Better Call Saul” remains part of the critical conversation and is the only AMC show to receive any Emmy nominations (11) this year. Before you start screaming “27” at me, let me be clear: I am talking about AMC, the network. AMC Networks, the parent company, which also owns BBC America, IFC, SundanceTV and Acorn TV, received 27 nominations in all. And yes, the second season of the highly popular “Killing Eve” (nine nominations) aired simultaneously on BBC America and AMC — but it is a BBC America show.

“Killing Eve” is also one of the reasons that Sarah Barnett, the former head of BBC America, was promoted last year. After launching Sundance TV’s foray into scripted series and green-lighting “Killing Eve,” she became president, entertainment networks, overseeing all the networks listed above.

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And unless she’s OK with the flagship being overrun by zombies, she has her work cut out for her.

While SundanceTV was getting all sorts of prestige attention for “Rectify,” “Top of the Lake” and “An Honorable Woman,” AMC’s attempts to recapture its glory have either failed to catch fire (“Halt and Catch Fire,” “Humans”), been plagued by controversy (“The Killing”) or vanished after one season (“The Prisoner,” “Rubicon,” “Dietland”).

“Rubicon”
"Rubicon."
(Matthew Welch / AMC)

Not every show is a good show (thank God for that, right?), and not every good show is a great show. But without the validation of that early media fanfare, AMC often seemed to have a tough time sticking to its programming convictions.

When the recently “rediscovered” “Rubicon” premiered in 2010, it was inevitably compared to “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” to its detriment. Slow-moving and complex — the protagonist worked for a think tank! — “Rubicon” got generally positive reviews and high (for AMC) premiere viewership, but not the ecstatic reaction AMC was looking for. It was canceled in the old-fashioned way: It vanished from sight. (The fact that AMC recently put it on its streaming site after years with no streaming deal and no DVD release speaks volumes.)

“The Killing,” which premiered the following year, was perhaps the first victim of joystick-criticism. Beloved and obsessed over when it debuted, the series was then battered nearly to death by the outrage many felt when the first season did not end the way they thought it should. AMC prevaricated, renewing it for another season then canceling it, then renewing it for a third season when it looked like another outlet would take it. The show finally limped off to Netflix for a fourth and final season of six episodes.

The network found shows to stand behind, if by “stand behind” you mean not canceling after one season: “Humans,” “Turn,” “Hell on Wheels.” “Halt and Catch Fire” is the closest the network has come to recapturing the early magic, but it could never seem to make enough noise to be heard.

Virtually every show that wasn’t “Better Call Saul” quickly became lost in the network’s new brand: “The Walking Dead.” Decisions to build a lineup around the fading majesty of the “Dead” franchise increasingly outnumbered attempts to return to AMC’s nonhorror legacy. “The Night Manager” made everyone sit up and take note for a few minutes, though its far more stylish and adventuresome follow-up, “The Little Drummer Girl,” did not.

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And for reasons known only to them, AMC execs repeatedly “forgot” the Netflix-enhanced history of “Breaking Bad.” Some shows are born great, others need time and a little help from secondary platforms.

“The Terror” on AMC.
"The Terror," an AMC series, stars Jared Harris as Francis Crozier.
(Aidan Monaghan / AMC )

Most recently, “Dietland” and “The Terror” were left completely in the lurch. Both were very good (if not perfect) shows that disappeared as soon as they were over. “Dietland,” now streaming on Hulu, had a big marketing push and generated a lot of positive buzz; its cancellation after one season took many by surprise. And even with the supernatural element — based on a book by Dan Simmons, the series followed the actual fate of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror during their polar exploration, but with a snow monster — “The Terror” was classic prestige and should have been an Emmy contender for at least Ciarán Hinds and Jared Harris (who just got his due for “Chernobyl”). Instead, it debuted to little fanfare, and for a full year after its finale was streaming only on AMC’s low-profile, in-house platform, AMC Premiere.

To be fair, AMC has revived “The Terror” as an anthology series. The first season can be seen on Hulu , and the network is pushing the second, “The Terror: Infamy,” with the fervor it deserves, most recently bringing the creators and cast, including the indomitable George Takei, to Comic- Con.

But AMC is going to have to get its head out of Comic-Con for a few minutes if it hopes to reclaim its place in the admittedly more chaotic landscape of 2019.

Or there’s my suggested name change: American Monster Classics has a ring to it.


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