Good news, Mad Men fans! You’re going to get even more of the show before its next and final season ends. Bad news, Mad Men fans! You only get one extra episode, and you won’t see the last half of the season until 2015.
AMC network announced today that it would be splitting the seventh and last season of the landmark ’60s series over two years. If that move sounds familiar, it’s because the network did exactly the same thing with Breaking Bad (though it got two eight-episode half-seasons). It comes on the network’s decisions in the past week to wring more seasons out of two other franchises, as it announced a Breaking Bad spinoff (Better Call Saul) and a second zombie series from the makers of The Walking Dead, yet untitled. (The Dead Walking? Zombie 2pocalypse?) And it comes from the network that also pioneered talk shows about its own dramas–Talking Dead, Talking Bad. (Have they announced Better Talk Saul yet?)
It comes, as well, as the network has cancelled The Killing and neither Hell on Wheels nor Low Winter Sun have managed to set TV on fire. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad is drawing huge ratings, but has only two more episodes to air. Not to sound ungrateful for a little extra Don Draper or the continued counsel of Mr. Saul Goodman, AMC is starting to look like it threw a dinner party, found spider webs in the cupboard, and is stre-e-e-e-e-tching the leftovers in the refrigerator as far as they will go.
There are worse problems, of course, than following up on fast success. But AMC is in much the position of HBO in the mid-’00s, after its early hits The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood (as well as critics’ fave The Wire) went off the air. It will have a lot of holes to fill and not much has yet emerged to fill them.
As for Mad Men in particular, I do trust Matthew Weiner’s creative skills, and to be fair, Breaking Bad does not seem to have suffered creatively from its last season being split in two. But it’s a different show, with a sprinter’s metabolism. Mad Men, in its best seasons, has used every one of its 13 episodes to build slowly, steadily, subtly, symphonically. I hope to be proven wrong, but I doubt an interruption will help it, especially if it’s driven more by business needs than creative ones.
(I’ve also heard the theory that a split season will expand Mad Men’s Emmy eligibility, which might be a factor here. Emmys are more important to AMC than some other networks, but I doubt that would be the main consideration for this kind of move at any network. Awards are nice, but the ultimate mark of recognition in the TV biz? As Don would say, “That’s what the money’s for!”)
It’s the most unhelpful advice to look at AMC’s dilemma and say, “Just develop more great shows!” But it’s also the only real way out of this problem. The only real replacement for an original, out-of-the-blue series is another original, out-of-the-blue series, not a clone or a continuation.
HBO came through a similar fix, developing a new generation of shows from the crowd-pleasing True Blood to the prestigious Treme to the crowd-pleasing-and-prestigious Game of Thrones. Maybe my biggest worry about AMC’s clone strategy is that it will work, ratings-wise, and thus become standard operating procedure for cable networks trying to keep the good times going.
That may be good business, but it’s the way to become a creative zombie network: walking, sure, but not really living.