It’s an old, beloved story known well by “Mad Men” fans: How their show got to air. Creator Matthew Weiner had an idea to tell the story about New York ad guys in the 1960s for years before it became a reality. He honed his skills at “The Sopranos” while “Men” sat on a shelf in his closet, and doggedly insisted he was going to be the one to get it made.
“There was a personal compulsion to get it done,” he told me a few years ago. “Every time I had an opportunity to talk about it, I would say, ‘I have a show I think people would really, really love.’ Then you start seeing things being made that are so simple and imitative, it’s like – they really don’t want to take a shot on this thing?”
Weiner’s perseverance was rewarded; he’s been in charge of the multiple Emmy-winning series for seven years, and rules with an iron fist. But he’s not the only success story to emerge from that vision: the show helped transform AMC from a channel known largely for dicing up old movies into a legit scripted programming hub. They needed each other, and the gamble paid off.
“Breaking Bad” is over. “Mad Men” is coming to a close next year. “Sons of Anarchy” is ending after this season. So what do we have out there to replace them? Not “The Leftovers.” Not “Tyrant.” Maybe “Fargo” and “Masters of Sex.” But the excitement over what next great thing was coming out of cable seems to have shifted recently – and it’s enough to make a TV fan despair: Where’s the next great cable show we’re supposed to be getting now?
Industry watchers shouldn’t be surprised that cable is a calmer, duller universe these days. The so-called cable revolution was legitimate, but it spawned out of things that were more about new networks wanting to stick a pin in the map and get their names associated with something other than reruns of other people’s material. But it’s less about ego than dollars – successful original shows draw bigger ad revenue; getting more ad revenue means you can fuel more special projects, higher-quality programs … and of course hire more employees. In the name of rebranding, new networks are balls-to-the-wall risk takers: A dud hardly changes their fortunes, while a screaming success makes them geniuses.
Alas, success breeds contentment, and contentment breeds a need for safety. This is, in large part (along with FCC regs) has hamstrung broadcast for years now. Broadcast networks are lousy with bureaucracy, mired in their own safe zones and top-heavy with people who are programmed to avoid risk at all costs. Money wants to be safe, and safe is not how any network – cable or otherwise – got where it was in the first place. I do think AMC would want “Mad Men” today if it was a fresh concept; I don’t think Matthew Weiner would sign with them – he’d want control they no longer seem willing to concede.
(A side note: There are exceptions on broadcast TV – NBC’s “Hannibal” and CBS’s “The Good Wife” air high-quality series in greater quantity than cable networks, and are consistently worth watching. I’ll get back to those in another column.)
And from what I can tell, non-premium cable networks have begun heading down the dark path broadcast networks have been lost in for years. Sorry, but while they’re well-made, FX’s “The Strain” and “Tyrant” and AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” are just almost good enough.
This probably explains why eyeballs are so eager for streaming service programming these days. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are where cable was in the late 1990s – hungry and willing to do whatever it takes to capture attention. But the very fact that Netflix can score with series like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” makes you wonder – how come cable networks didn’t see those coming? How much of it is the medium, and how much is it the message?
Where does writing come into all of this? On the surface, it doesn’t – but strip away the business of making TV and what you always need is a good story, well told. And if cable has taught us anything, it’s that letting a writer and creator of a show actually runs the thing is absolutely worth doing. The shows cable once gambled on were heavily writer-driven, with a single auteur at the helm. Agreed, not every writer has it in him to be the captain of a ship – but in recent years the shows that do gangbuster business (I’m looking at you, Shonda Rhimes) are the ones with writers who regularly inject attitude, charm and a sense of direction into their passion projects. As with Weiner, it’s personal.
So where’s your fall TV preview? This is it, in disguise. Come this new TV season – and consider this advice for all TV seasons to come – when you settle down to watch a new series that shows promise and has caught your attention, consider the writer input. What’s the creator’s name? Is he or she writing the thing? If so, it’s a good bet that it’s worth space on your DVR.
If not … consider changing the channel.