Will AMC's deal to end Breaking Bad in 16 episodes clean up its punishing image?
If part of the prestige TV business is keeping a sharp image, AMC may be winning battles but losing the war, as fighting over costs leads to high profile controversies over the fate of top shelf shows such as Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad.
Good news came in the wee hours Sunday, as AMC announced a deal to finish the story for multiple Emmy winner Breaking Bad in 16 episodes, as rumors spread the channel was trying to force creator Vince Gilligan to wrap in up in a far smaller number. No word on how those 16 episodes will air, though production starts in early 2012.
AMC's surprise firing of Walking Dead mastermind Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption) already sparked a gossipy story in the Hollywood Reporter suggesting the famed director's attempt to resist aggressive cost-cutting led to losing his job.
Kurt Sutter, creator and top producer on FX's biker drama Sons of Anarchy, drew more heat by posting on Twitter that Mad Men creator Matt Weiner's recent to-the-brink negotiations with AMC soaked up so much money the channel was forced to cut its other series, including its biggest hit, Walking Dead.
Days after kicking up a storm by posting that message and others defending Darabont, Sutter was telling fans he was quitting Twitter. Posting on his blog, Sutter said "I'm a guy desperately in need of buffers. I have big feelings, big reactions, big emotions. All the things that serve me as an artist, but challenge me as a socially-responsible human being. I've learned in most areas of my life, to bounce heated choices off other people. Co-workers, my agent, my wife, a sponsor, etc. A majority of the time, that keeps me on the right side of things. With Twitter, there was no buffer, just me, my big feelings and my big opinions. I don't regret any tweet, nor do I apologize. Everything I said was done in the spirit of social conversation, free speech and was my opinion. Right or wrong, I said it, I own it."
Such turmoil has transfixed Hollywood, which is used to seeing this kind of hardball played with underperforming shows or programs on the decline. But with AMC seeming to come into its own with a string of critically-acclaimed programs and a popular hit, news that it's cracking down on budgets strikes some as punishing producers for success.
The press release for its Breaking Bad decision glasses over these issues, noting that the show's "fourth season premiered on Sunday, July 18th to the highest ratings ever for the series. Household ratings are 30% stronger than season three and season four is delivering 28% more total viewers and over 45% more adults 18-34 than last season."
Viewers have seen protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston) morph from a cancer-stricken, underachieving high school teacher into a manufacturer of the finest crystal meth in New Mexico, a hair's breadth away from taking over the business himself. With this deal, Gilligan gets to episodes needed to end White's journey without rushing or compromise.
“It’s a funny irony -- I’d hate to know the date of my own last day on earth, but I’m delighted to know what Walter White’s will be (episodically speaking)," Gilligan said in the release. "This is a great gift to me and to my wonderful writers. It’s knowledge which will allow us to properly build our story to a satisfying conclusion. Now, if we don’t manage to pull that off, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves."
Now that AMC has put a smiley face on its relations with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, all they have to do is keep Walking Dead from imploding without its visionary godfather. Fans of quality television are stuck on the sidelines, hoping the channel's executives don't find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.