I wasn’t personally a fan of Rubicon, but a lot of people I respect were fans, and on their behalf I’m sorry that the show has been canceled after one season. I was wondering whether the success of The Walking Dead — success far beyond anything AMC has ever had before — would be good or bad news for Rubicon, whose ratings were low but comparable to the first seasons of AMC’s two flagship shows (Mad Men and Breaking Bad). Some people thought that this new success would make the network more willing to take a chance on a low-rated show that they like. Others argued that The Walking Dead created new expectations for this network: once they prove that they can get a big audience, it’s harder to make excuses for a show with a small audience, because the term “not bad for AMC” no longer applies. It looks like the latter might have been closer to the truth. Not that AMC will never pick up a low-rated show, but they’ve already got a low-rated show in Breaking Bad, and that show is more acclaimed (and better) than Rubicon. In general, though, low-rated shows have a better chance on struggling networks: we’ve seen repeatedly that NBC has a lower threshold for renewing a show than CBS does, because the expectations are lower at NBC. Future AMC shows may be expected to perform… not as well as Walking Dead, but certainly better than Rubicon. The show could be a victim of sudden increased expectations.
Though Rubicon was not to my taste — even though it undeniably got better over its run — the news can’t help but sadden me a little, and not just because its fans probably deserved a better ending than what turned out to be the series finale. It was a show that didn’t feature a great deal of violence; though it was undeniably a melodrama, it wasn’t a spectacular show. This may be why the producers found, to their surprise, that the show was skewing older than AMC’s other shows — along with the fact that it was a tribute to movies from the mid-1970s. With the cancellation of this show and the arrival of a comic-book horror show as the network’s new flagship, it feels like we’re moving closer toward a day when everything on high-end cable will have to be spectacular and young-skewing. (This is not a slam on The Walking Dead specifically; just an observation that AMC will be wanting more shows that deliver a similar audience.) They’ve built up enough good will and enough of a brand that virtually anything they do will be taken seriously, and so they can theoretically concentrate on shows that have broad popular appeal in addition to the inevitable critical respect.
HBO, whose flagship is also a violent monster show, already appears to be moving in that direction; they just turned down what I thought sounded like their most promising pilot, “Miraculous Year,” a premise that was about people who are not involved in crime and violence — not yet, anyway. SyFy canceled the relatively unspectacular and uneven Caprica and will replace it with a younger-skewing, more action-packed Galactica prequel. Meanwhile, The Good Wife, arguably the best broadcast network drama and one of the more down-to-earth ones (albeit with a coat of sensationalism) is a hit in total viewers but a bubble show in the Coveted Demographic. If networks get the idea that their desired viewers don’t want certain types of drama, it’s going to make it hard for shows to get picked up, even on cable, if they don’t have Nazi werewolves in them.
With that in mind, I’ll be interested to see what happens to Men of a Certain Age, a show that belies TNT’s reputation as a network that doesn’t take chances, but which represents the kind of relatively quiet, old-skewing show that’s endangered these days. Its second season begins November 29, and its fate — along with that of The Good Wife and a few others — may say something about the future chances of certain types of hard-to-pigeonhole hour-long dramas.