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You Can Never Win: AMC Cancels Rubicon

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And thus Truxton Spangler gets to walk away. AMC announced today that it will not renew espionage thriller Rubicon, thus breaking its undefeated streak of shows renewed after their first season (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead). The statement, in its entirety:

‘Rubicon’ gave us an opportunity to tell a rich and compelling story, and we’re proud of the series. This was not an easy decision, but we are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a phenomenally talented and dedicated team.

That doesn’t tell us why the decision was made, but a few possibilities:

* The ratings were bad. Well, that’s not so much a theory as fact. Rubicon was pulling in the neighborhood of a million viewers per episode. Still Breaking Bad and Mad Men didn’t light the world on fire when they debuted, either, yet the network gave them a chance to grow. Which suggests, perhaps…

* The Walking Dead effect. AMC’s zombie-apocalypse series came out of the gate as its most successful show ever. Having seen that the network was now capable of putting on the air a show that could compete with cable’s most popular (and in key demographics beat them), AMC may simply have decided that it was no longer a network of boutique little shows. Of course, some people had thought wishfully that Dead’s success might give AMC a cushion and buy Rubicon time. I never bought into that possibility, and in fact there may have been…

* The other Walking Dead effect. With three dramas committed for new seasons, and a fair amount of product in development, AMC may simply have decided it lacked the cash, or schedule space, to keep Rubicon around and hope for better. Especially if it thought the show had limited upside to grow, given…

* The season finale. I thought the finale had problems, but didn’t find it nearly the betrayal that some viewers and critics did; it set up the outlines of a larger conspiracy chase for a second season, much as I thought it would. Regardless, the finale’s reception hurt the show’s critical momentum, which really grew around the middle of its run. Rubicon may have needed to stick the landing beyond dispute to earn a second chance, and it didn’t.

Obviously I’m disappointed. But my greater concern is that AMC not significantly change its creative identity now that it’s had a taste of success. As I told a follower on Twitter who wondered if this was a sign that AMC was giving up risky shows post-Walking Dead, I hope not; Dead may be in a familiar genre, but it’s not exactly Rizzoli and Isles.

But AMC would do well to remember (as FX has, even if possibly to the sacrifice of ratings) that it can’t lose its pedigree and brand without losing what made it successful. I liked Rubicon a lot, but there will be other intelligent thrillers eventually. What we don’t need, though, is another USA or TNT, chugging along with successful shows of middling ambition.

If it sticks to ambition in its future development, I can forgive AMC the axing of Rubicon. (Though, seriously: a wrap-up movie would have been great, and a show of good faith.) That said, I’ll bet there are four-leaf clovers being mailed to AMC HQ even as I write this.