We’ve spent a fair amount of time this week scratching our heads and having a bit of a laugh at the expense of Better Call Saul, AMC’s forthcoming comic spin-off of their hit Breaking Bad. On first glance, it seems like exactly the kind of inexplicable and frankly silly programming decision that television networks make all the time (how ya doin, Dads). But over at TV.com, in a piece convincingly titled “What the heck is going on at AMC?,” writer Cory Barker asks if there’s more to Saul than craven opportunism; he poses the notion that it’s part of an overarching pattern of utterly bewildering behavior at the cable network.
The channel doesn’t exactly reek of desperation at the moment. Breaking Bad is experiencing its best ratings to date, planting itself firmly at the center of the cultural conversation in the countdown to its final episodes (and, in the process, slyly hogging the spotlight from this month’s season and series premieres on the major networks). Mad Men remains a critical and water-cooler favorite. And The Walking Dead is a ratings juggernaut, regularly beating its network competition in key demos.
But here’s the catch: The Walking Dead, which premiered nearly three years ago now, was the network’s last original scripted hit. And while that show will soldier on — albeit under yet another new show runner — Breaking Bad is three weeks from over, and Mad Men only has one more season. Those two shows were supposed to make the network an HBO-style home for quality original programming, but in the years since they began sweeping the Emmys, we’ve seen the splashy debuts and subsequent cancellations of Rubicon and The Killing (twice now), and Low Winter Sun looks poised to join them. Hell on Wheels is apparently still chugging along, but seriously, do you know anyone who watches Hell on Wheels?
So within the calendar year, AMC will dwindle from three giant, zeitgeist-y hits to one. Is that Better Call Saul pick-up starting to make a little more sense?
What’s even more peculiar about the network’s inability to find new hits is the number of shows it’s giving away to sister network Sundance. Top of the Lake sorta makes sense, being a limited-run miniseries, but I can’t imagine the logic that lead anyone there to decide to toss away Rectify, the brilliant, powerful small-town drama from Breaking Bad’s executive producers that would’ve made a far more ideal Sunday night companion than the dull Low Winter Sun.
This could all be premature hand-wringing, of course. Maybe the network’s other new pick-ups (the Lee Pace-starring tech drama Halt & Catch Fire and the American Revolution drama Turn) will become the hits they so badly need; maybe Better Call Saul will turn out better than the web series it sounds like. But if they’re going to continue as the home of prestige television they’ve attempted to brand themselves as, they’re gonna have to get their PR under control. As Barker notes, to “inside TV” types, AMC has cultivated a bit of a reputation for penny-pinching and contract disputes, their drawn-out negotiations with Mad Men’s Matt Weiner and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan delaying and breaking up seasons, while The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont reportedly exited over budget woes.
But (as we’ve noted), in today’s TV drama game, beggars can’t be choosers. If AMC wants to stay alive as a prestige drama destination, they’ve got to make themselves a more attractive home for creative types. Right now, for those to whom such things matter, they’re as well known for quibbling with show-runners as they are for putting on brilliant programs. Unless the fix that image problem, and stop giving away their most promising shows, they could end up looking less like HBO than TNT.