'Breaking Bad' at Impasse as AMC's Growing Pains Emerge (Analysis)

The Walking Dead - TV Still: Season 2 - H - 2011
Courtesy of AMC

It's been fascinating to watch AMC of late. In a slightly less magnified example of the troubles HBO went through three or four years ago, AMC is finding out that being the golden child only lasts until the first growing pains kick in.

Or the first mistakes are made.

For AMC, however, a lot of recent management decisions are being met with raised eyebrows in the industry and both angry and worried reactions from fans of its shows.

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In both negotiations with Mad Men creator Matt Weiner during the run of the show, the impasses semed surprising. His show put AMC on the map and no matter how relatively small the ratings were, you can't put a price on creating a brand from scratch almost overnight. AMC was dowdy and dead, less than an afterthought before Mad Men. Why risk  pissing off the goose that laid that beauty of an egg? Negotiations got tense and -- worse -- spilled into the news. Both times.

That shouldn't have happened but, as we look back, may have been a sign. You could see the predicament that AMC was in. It was hard to imagine how they were getting the money to sustain Mad Men. Then, the second time around it was evident that giving Weiner and Hamm and others money to continue was going to cripple the channel's chances of branching out.

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Breaking Bad was a series that fell in AMC's lap from FX, but AMC at least had the vision and guts to develop it fully and -- voila -- suddenly it had the two best dramas on television (they still do). That, as you might guess, wasn't cheap. But AMC continued to branch out from there, creating a miniseries out of The Prisoner, then the ambitious but failed drama Rubicon, followed by the huge hit in The Walking Dead and the buzzed-about and then banged-about series The Killing. AMC's next foray into a series is Hell on Wheels, a stylized Western.

Even just a couple of days ago, the biggest worry -- unstated -- was managing fall-out and, possibly, expectations. The ending to The Killing annoyed countless fans and how that reaction was handled (poorly) was magnified by showrunner Veena Sud chiming in and confirming some suspicions that she might not get what the gripes were about content-wise, and thus maybe in over her head creatively. Shortly after that, Frank Darabont, the executive producer and guiding force behind The Walking Dead abruptly left. And after seeing the pilot of Hell on Wheels -- a series that will need a lot of work and maybe some prayers -- it was hard not to think that maybe AMC was learning the hard way that show runners like Weiner and Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan were elite talents and those people just don't come along that often. Translation: The Killing and Hell on Wheels may be very distant relations to Mad Men and Breaking Bad in terms of quality.

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That's certainly a mess worth covering up or fixing behind the scenes (and to AMC's credit, after a delay the channel did adequately reassure industry observers and fans that a good team at The Walking Dead was in place to take over as Darabont left.)

Then came word Tuesday from a Los Angeles Times story that negotiations for a fifth season of the acclaimed Breaking Bad were going sideways and that the show was being shopped elsewhere just in case everything imploded. (Breaking Bad creator Gilligan has said recently that he thinks the show should end after five seasons -- it's currently in Season 4). The Times reported that AMC had asked that episodes on Breaking Bad be cut from 13 to six or eight -- a request that spurred the search for a backup channel.

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Already there were rumors that Darabont left The Walking Dead because AMC wanted to give the series less money per episode than it did in Season 1 -- despite being AMC's highest-rated series. You can imagine that Darabont might have been thinking about getting a bigger budget given the ratings and thus pissed off to find out that The Walking Dead might be used to subsidize all the money paid out to Mad Men, the world's most gorgeous and written-about loss-leader.

And now the squeeze on the financials is hitting Breaking Bad, a turn of events that AMC needs to get under control immediately. Why? Because things are looking bleaker than a frightened survivor being surrounded by zombies. It's bad that AMC seems incapable of getting its woes out of the news cycle (and it could have been much worse had more critics watched the Hell on Wheels screener).

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So now AMC looks to be a channel that doesn't have the money to properly maintain the two brightest jewels in the television landscape. It absolutely needed Mad Men to go all the way to the finish line just as it absolutely needs Breaking Bad to get a fifth season of its brilliant run and go out on top. That's a deal that must get done (and now that it's no longer being negotiated in private, the sooner the better).

What AMC is finding is that you can be a do-no-wrong darling one moment and then perceived as bumbling fool the next. Hell, it happened to HBO, the gold-standard of cable programming. HBO took some lumps and some well-deserved criticism, but ultimately fought (or rather programmed) its way back to the top. 

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AMC should tackle the no-brainer first -- extend Breaking Bad to a fifth and final season. That way you've been a fine steward for two brilliant series and nobody can ever take that away from you. Since announcing the succession team at The Walking Dead was met with approval, AMC can consider that fire doused. But lingering in the distance is how to fix The Killing and, one would hope, get future episodes (if not the pilot) of Hell on Wheels upgraded.

Because as it stands, if Hell on Wheels doesn't work creatively, it will look like AMC gave series to showrunners better equipped for network telelvision than to extend a brand of greatness, which AMC is pushing.

This is a very intriguing time in the development of AMC as a channel. If it doesn't act quickly now with Breaking Bad, and with firm creative control in the near future with The Killing and Hell on Wheels, we might witness the fastest decline of a television brand in recent memory.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine