When AMC announced earlier this week that Breaking Bad will premiere its fifth season on July 15, it was met with so much rejoicing that many missed the second half of the press release: AMC will also be premiering the first of eight episodes in a new reality series called Small Town Security, about “a family-owned private security company in Georgia.”
Even for AMC, which has made several high-profile missteps over the past few years, this seems like a strange detour. Over the past year, the network has dabbled in both talk shows and reality shows with Talking Dead, Comic Book Men, and The Pitch. But those series were clearly piggybacking on the success of AMC’s two most prominent (and most profitable) successes: The Walking Dead and Mad Men.
It’s admittedly harder to make a reality series about manufacturing meth, though I’d definitely tune in for a Breaking Bad talk show (Talking Bad? Breaking Chat? Just spitballing here). But Small Town Security is AMC’s first step toward standalone reality programming.
The conventional narrative – and in my opinion, the correct one – is that AMC grew too fast, too soon. After quietly rolling along as the premiere channel for commercial-filled American movie “classics” for decades, the network experimented with original content and hit two unprecedented home runs: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But quality costs money, and each of AMC’s attempts to curb the costs of its original programming resulted in an embarrassing loss of face, from protracted salary and creative arguments with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner to rumblings about Breaking Bad moving to FX, amid rumors that AMC was demanding a shortened (read: cheaper) final season.
I’m a TV critic, not a businessman, and I’m well aware that my priorities are different than the priorities of AMC executives. But I can’t see how it’s a good idea to invest in reality programming that has no ties to AMC’s flagship series. Small Town Security is being developed by producers Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver, whose biggest success is VH1’s so-bad-it’s-awful Mob Wives. The sky certainly isn’t falling – AMC has already greenlit pilots for two new scripted dramas – but I don’t know any Breaking Bad fans who will stick around to watch a reality show that would seem much more at home on Discovery or A&E.
High-quality television obviously costs money, and if the price of Mad Men and Breaking Bad means filling other time slots with cheap-to-produce supplemental content, I can live with it. But it wasn’t so long ago that the network was investing in genres that no other network would touch, which led to successes like The Walking Dead and failures like the miniseries remake of The Prisoner. I don’t see any of that pilgrim spirit in AMC’s latest moves. That may be good business. But let’s not forget that AMC’s willingness to invest real money in something risky and brave is how we got Mad Men and Breaking Bad in the first place.