How to suck the life out of cable TV

‘The Walking Dead’ is no ‘Mad Men’, and AMC has zombies marooned on a farm to prove it

How to suck the life out of cable TV

Everett Collection

What have zombies done to TV’s brainiest network? In its second season, The Walking Dead is the biggest hit in AMC’s history and its first major popular success after doing mostly cult favourites like Mad Men. But some critics think the cable channel isn’t living up to its image as a home for the highest-quality TV, an image it has tried to create with slogans like “Story matters here.” Now it seems to be drifting away from those high-end viewers in the pursuit of profit. Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker suspects there’s “little to no overlap” between “people who watch The Walking Dead and who watch AMC the rest of the time,” and AMC recently began airing reruns of CSI: Miami, the kind of show people watch Mad Men to escape from. AMC’s brand, says Newsweek critic Jace Lacob, was once “akin to being basic cable’s answer to HBO.” No longer.

The Walking Dead has received mostly lukewarm reviews, the kind that AMC’s first two dramas, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, never got. There have been accusations of flat characterization and what Lacob calls “a distinct lack of forward momentum,” because the second season marooned the characters on a farm for several episodes in a row, leading to a lot of endless talk in between zombie attacks. “It’s not a good thing when you want the zombies to start killing the characters,” Lacob says. The show even attracted politically charged criticism, thanks to a character’s unsuccessful attempt to induce an abortion with a bottle of morning-after pills (helpfully labelled “morning-after pills”).

AMC’s other shows haven’t exactly been critics’ darlings, either. The murder mystery The Killing received withering reviews for its first season finale, while Lacob says the network’s newest show, the western Hell on Wheels, “suffered from unfavourable comparisons to HBO’s Deadwood.” Joel Stillerman, a senior vice-president at AMC, says reviews have generally been “appropriate to what the shows are,” and he’s not surprised the network is not critically infallible. “To think that it was all going to be like Mad Men and Breaking Bad would have been a fool’s errand.”

It doesn’t help that AMC’s recent productions don’t have the lavish budget or creative freedom of Mad Men. Walking Dead producer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) left over a reported budget cut of $250,000 per episode in the current season. Stillerman says the budget of The Walking Dead is still “at the high end of basic cable drama budgets,” but that they could never continue with the production values of the first season. “That was really an extended pilot, and it was done for a significant amount of money above and beyond what any basic cable show could ever sustain on an ongoing basis.” Instead of the period drama Mad Men, which spends a fortune and gets an elite audience, AMC may be moving toward a more typical TV model with The Walking Dead: controlling costs and aiming at the broadest audience it can get.

All of this is a natural consequence in a new TV world where subscriptions are lagging and DVD sales are declining and cable networks need all the viewers they can get. Shows like Mad Men win awards, but horror dramas and westerns are tied into what Stillerman calls “our core business, and the bulk of our programming, which is movies.” And AMC is starting to dip its toe into even cheaper types of TV. In addition to CSI, the network’s CEO Josh Sapan said recently they plan to add four reality shows next year, and the network already has The Talking Dead, a post-show discussion of who got killed that week.

And yet, to attract subscribers, AMC will want to find acclaimed shows to replace Mad Men when it ends. But other networks, with more to prove, might make those shows instead, the way AMC took Emmys away from HBO. Lacob has hopes for Sundance, a network owned by the same company as AMC, “now developing AMC cast-off Rectify, a script I loved when I read it a few years back.” Stillerman is proud of AMC’s work, but admits it’s going to be tough to find shows that will resonate with critics the way Mad Men did. “That is an almost insanely high bar.”

Filed under:

How to suck the life out of cable TV

  1. Gtfo of here with your pretentious hipster crap. NOBODY WATCHES ‘MAD MEN!’

    • Is that so? I guess 13 episodes every couple of years of a top quality production is too much for you, compared to the endless cycle of crap that’s on TV the rest of the time. As the article states accurately, Mad Men is a show for people looking to escape the barrage of CSI, etc., so deal with it.

    • I have watched every single episode of Mad Men, some of them twice, as has my partner, parents and a few close friends. So yes, somebody does watch it.

    • I do.

  2. Mad Men may be one of the most overrated series of the past decade.  It’s like Stephen Hawkings’ “A Brief History of Time” — everyone knows about it, and displays their knowledge of it, but have they ever really watched / read it?

  3. So unless a show is being showered with attention by the critics, being nominated for multiple awards and generating enough buzz through out Hollywood it doesn’t deserve full production cost? The network quoted the producers one price, and once the show took off decided it didn’t need the one person who made all the difference to the damn show! Now look at the show, look at how season 2 panned out! season 2 legged on and let me tell you something, Frank Darabont was the creative brains behind the damn show, you can’t fire the one person creating, writing, directing, and holding the damn show together AMC! this is the reason why there  won’t be a season 4 or 5. Instead of holding off on that dumb ass show Hell on Wheels and given that money to The Walking Dead, like the producers were led to believe you would, you pulled a fast one to cover Your own asses!

    I don’t know who’s running things over at AMC but replace whoever needs replacing and start over, and quick or you won’t have a network worth fighting over. Stop picking up silly ass shows like Rubicon, and Hell on Wheels, slow down and start pretending you have a brain. Keep the Killing, drop Hell on Wheels, because unless you replace the writers there’s nothing left to say, and stop giving Mad Men all the damn money. Mad Men is a good show, but it isn’t all that! To be honest whenever I can’t sleep Mad Men is the show I prefer to watch, because I know within a matter of minutes I’m out like a lamp. Drop the Walking Dead now,  use that money to tweek some shows, and maybe even find a better show, worth discussing. Stealing a few awards from HBO don’t make you HBO.  Let’s see…Game of Thrones VS. The Walking Dead VS, TrueBlood VS Showtimes Dexter?  Come on AMC lets’ be real.

  4. I was a huge fan of The Walking Dead, even though the six episode run of season 1 left me wanting so much more.  This year, not so much, and for the same reasons listed:  they spent way too much time comfortable on the farm when they should have been desperate on the road.  The tension that worked so well in season one disappeared through the course of this half-season.  Was the extended barn story (extended compared to the comic book, anyway) just done to save money on sets?

    Just out of curiousity, how much of Breaking Bad’s success (I love that show, and can’t wait to start season 5) is because of Bryan Cranston and the I-can’t-believe-that’s-Malcom’s-dad! effect?  Did a lot of people start watching BB because of the anti-typecasting of him as Walter White?  I think all of the actors involved in that show are great, but I keep coming back to watch it because of Cranston (and also to laugh at the over-the-top comic relief brought by Bob Odenkirk’s character).

    • Just so you know, there will be another 7 episodes airing this winter of The Walking Dead.

  5. In answer to the question about Breaking Bad – I started watching it because it is the most fascinating show I have seen.  Bryan Cranston isn’t the only stand out as far as acting goes on that show. 

    The premise of the show is intriguing, the writing is top notch, and the plot twists are incredible.   I remember at the end of episode 12 of season 3 thinking “That wasn’t the season finale?  What the heck else can they pack onto the pile in the next episode?”   Just a joy to watch.  

    I have tried to watch Walking Dead or as this article points out the “Hanging out on a Farm Show”…and could just not get into it.  I believe the audiences of these two shows are very different  – it’s quite obvious when you drop by the AMC discussion forums and compare the comments being made about both. 

    The good news is Breaking Bad will be back for one final season.   Sad to see this masterpiece end, but pleasing to see that it will complete the intended arc without being overworked.

Sign in to comment.