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.”

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