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Five Things AMC Should Do To Win Back Its Reputation

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The network that brought us Mad Men and Breaking Bad needs another hit.


With the explosive ending of Breaking Bad in our collective rearview, and Mad Men not starting up until next March, there's a big lull in quality original programming over at AMC. The network that once had visions of competing with HBO in dominating water-cooler conversations is now doing so — but for all the wrong reasons. After the one-two punch of Mad and Bad, they're still looking for a third hit. Rubicon was pulled after a season despite critical acclaim; The Walking Dead broke all sorts of ratings records, but that seems more due to the "zombies are on TV" bump than the show's actual quality; and the less said about The Killing, the better. They'll try to right the ship this November with a Western, Hell on Wheels, but that doesn't seem like a game-changer. Looming in the distance is an even bigger issue: both Breaking Bad and Mad Men have their series finales in sight, the former a mere sixteen episodes away while the latter has three seasons to go before Don Draper presumably dies of lung cancer/liver explosion/every venereal disease known to mankind. So this is the time for the network to start thinking about their future. Here are five things they should do:

 

1. Quit with the remakes and adaptations.

Both Breaking Bad and Mad Men felt like fresh, innovative properties. No one had done a period piece about ad executives in the '60s before. No one had written a show about a high-school teacher who cooks meth. But then AMC started getting cold feet with original properties, settling for remakes (The Prisoner), comic-book adaptations (The Walking Dead), and Americanized versions of Danish TV shows (The Killing). In each case, AMC let the door open for critics and viewers to compare them to the original, and in all cases the new versions fell short. Just start with something fresh.

 

2. Find the right showrunners.

Whatever method the execs have been using to find showrunners hasn't been working. Rubicon creator and showrunner Jason Horwitch left the show before the pilot aired. No one's entirely sure what's been going on with Frank Darabont in The Walking Dead's writers room; first he fired his staff, then he said he'd be using freelancers for the second season, then he stepped down (or got fired, depending on who's telling the story). And in post-finale interviews, The Killing's Veena Sud somehow made people hate the show even more. Yes, you're dealing with alpha-type personalities when it comes to showrunners — and no doubt AMC's had enough headaches during contract negotiations with Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan — but a streak like this means someone at the top isn't doing the right amount of leg-work.


3. To paraphrase another network's tagline, characters are not just welcome, but necessary.

While AMC's motto is "Story Matters Here," their iconic characters were the reason they were once considered in the Best TV Networks discussion. You can feel comfortable going out on Halloween as Don Draper or Walter White without having to explain it. But after that? There's nobody. The problem with every show since was a focus more on the plot than the characters dealing with it. You can pretty much take anyone from The Killing and throw them in the world of The Walking Dead without losing a beat; instead of finding a killer, they'd be killing zombies. When searching for properties, AMC needs to focus less on plot dynamics and more on character arcs. (Also, apparently it doesn't hurt to get alliterative with the main character's name.)


4. Leave reality shows to lesser networks.

AMC is set to launch four reality shows towards the end of the year. One follows the behind-the-scenes machinations of Homeland Security, another focuses on a family-owned private security company, another tries to capitalize on Mad Men by following around actual ad executives, and a fourth is set inside Kevin Smith's Jersey-based comic-book shop. These are all mistakes. AMC's brand, the thing that made them more than just a clearinghouse for horror movies during October's "Monsterfest" and black-and-white westerns during the rest of the year, is quality scripted programming. That's what set them apart in the first place. If their toe-dip into reality programming turns into a full leg submersion, they'll soon just be lost in the annoying alphabet soup of the TLCs, A&Es and MTVs.


5. Invest in comedy.

FX has become a go-to network for great original programming over the past few years, pretty much based on the greatness of their half-hour comedies alone. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia led the way with its low-budget crude sensibilities, followed by the animated vulgarities of Archer, and then the most critically-acclaimed show currently in existence, Louie. If budgetary issues are the reason AMC's dipping into the reality pond, they should be producing low-budget comedies instead. And actually, they actually just announced a comedy, but it doesn't look too promising. Dig a little deeper, guys — it's never been easier to find high-quality, established comedic voices. You don't need to comb the country — you just need to look at their YouTube channels. Find a great comedian or sketch group, give them a Louie-style deal (a smallish budget and nearly unlimited creative control), and see what comes of it. At the least, it'll make AMC interesting again. At the most, it'll make them relevant.