In his conversation with the New York Times, Mad Men’s Svengali, Matthew Weiner, described what he referred to as AMC’s “growing pains.” Since Mad Men’s debut, and with addition of Breaking Bad, AMC has had to come to terms with being a network not simply a channel. Nowhere is that more clear than on a stroll along any Brooklyn or lower Manhattan Subway platform. Separated by an ad for American Pie 4: This Time It’s Pie-sonal and something called Miss Jessie’s Curly Pudding are these two images:
The ads, like the shows, could not be more different. Where one is ambiguous, purposefully composed, and deeply evocative the other feels like an exercise in ham-fisted faux-mystery. This is what it looks like when a network attempts to advertise television’s worst and best show at the same time.*
Calling The Killing the worst show on television is both a bit too extreme and not extreme enough. Like a streetside hooker wearing the clothes of a high-class escort, The Killing wrapped its shortcomings in the accoutrement of what we expect from top-tier dramas. It aired Sunday nights, was visually interesting, boasted a talented cast of unknowns, and proclaimed to be a genre game-changer yet all along it was as shallow and insipidly manipulative as the worst procedurals. Is The Killing worse than Are You There, Chelsea? or The Firm – shows that aspired for little and failed to achieve even that – no, but never before has a show this bad thought it was this good.
The Killing’s undeniably cool-named showrunner, Veena Sud, would tell you her show is going exactly as planned, which is frightening. She blamed the American public for their inability to comprehend a crime show that doesn’t find the killer immediately. As week after week, critic upon critic proclaimed the show a failure she continued to respond with the smug-satisfaction of an underappreciated genius.
Through all of this, AMC stood by her side because that’s what AMC does and has done – they let creatives be creative. Mad Men has been able to maintain its obscenely high standard due to the unfettered vision of Weiner. Expectedly succinctly Weiner described his show as “a different thing…a story where there’s not a huge plot. There’s no gunplay.” Add in the fact that the show’s previous marketing focus, its glamorous bygone era sexiness, mostly went down the toilet last season with Don’s alcoholic regurgitations (well, at least the parts that didn’t wind up on his shirt). No network would allow for this – or Breaking Bad’s darkness and violent unpredictability – if it didn’t trust its showrunners. The problem is not everyone is Wiener or Gilligan. Sure, sometimes the inmates you let run the asylum are mad genius but more often than not they are just crazy people yelling a story without a satisfying season finale.
Ten years ago was a simpler time for AMC. I imagine when their only job was promoting the ten weekly showings of Sullivan’s Travels, their advertising budget consisted exclusively of the cost to be included on the local listing channel. As Weiner explained to the Times, AMC was “not used to having people scrutinize anything that they did.” They’ve spent a lot of time and A LOT of money to attract an audience of smarty pantses who expect the world. The Walking Dead is solid but doesn’t really ascend beyond genre, The Killing had the prettiest season of CSI imaginable but that’s not good enough, and there is that show about cowboy trains that had so little buzz, I’m not sure it ever really existed. There is a generation of TV-nerds so savvy and demanding that a network that helped breed them is incapable of meeting and advertising to their needs. AMC made it’s own highbrow fainting couch and now it must lie in it.
*This is not, however, what it looks when doves cry. This is: