The strategy worked, and AMC now saw a chance to reorganize some of its vast vault around an original series that would share the channel’s DNA. In other words, sophistication was a well-considered business move: An AMC series would have to look good surrounded by expensive old cinema. This meant it would have to be shot on 35‑mm. film, a luxury in basic-cable world. A period setting would be great, too.
The executive who saw Broken Trail through development was Christina Wayne, at the time one of AMC’s few staffers charged with original programming. A screenwriter herself (she co-wrote the Dirty Dancing sequel), Wayne had been given an offbeat but beautiful script just two months after taking the job at AMC. She instantly fell in love with it. It was a show HBO had rejected called Mad Men.
Besides its intricate mix of high drama and dry humor, Mad Men fairly gleamed with retro chic; a series like this could be paired with anything from Hitchcock to Scorsese. Weiner’s smoke-shrouded, bourbon-drenched pilot script, written eight years before on spec, was no one’s idea of a sure thing. But in the Broken Trail afterglow, Wayne could do no wrong; she took Mad Men to AMC’s head of programming, Rob Sorcher, and as soon as Weiner was free from his Sopranos gig, cameras rolled.
AMC decided to finance the pilot by itself, but the move was perhaps premature. “We were so green,” says Wayne. “We had no experience making scripted TV.” Unlike subsequent episodes, which Lionsgate produces in Los Angeles, the Mad Men pilot was shot in New York City’s Silvercup studios (if you look at it closely, you’ll see the main set of the ad firm Sterling Cooper is slightly different). Exactly how green AMC was can be gauged by the fact that, instead of selling ads against Mad Men, it originally wanted individual advertisers to underwrite whole episodes, like in sixties TV. “I guarantee you, when you cut to a commercial in this show, viewers are going to be watching that commercial,” Sorcher, a former ad copywriter, boasted to the New York Times in 2006. That model was soon abandoned, and Sorcher left the company in 2007. (Wayne left to establish her own production company in 2009.)
AMC’s new executive vice-president and general manager was a young executive named Charlie Collier. A cable-TV veteran with a Columbia M.B.A., Collier looks disorientingly like Breaking Bad co-star Bob Odenkirk. He gets rightful credit for his creative judgment, but he is no arty idealist. It takes only a few minutes of conversation with him to notice that his favorite word is “scaling”—M.B.A.-speak for re-creating one success in perpetuity. Where others saw a great show, Collier also saw a scalable business model.
Mad Men premiered on July 19, 2007, with GoodFellas as the lead-in. The first season averaged 925,000 viewers—a so-so number for basic cable. But just a few episodes in, the chorus of critical adulation began: revolutionary, exceptional, groundbreaking. The show’s audience was unusually upscale, with a median household income among 25-to-54-year-olds exceeding $100,000. At the 2008 Golden Globes, Mad Men won honors for Best Actor (Jon Hamm) and Best Drama. The 2008 writers’ strike reduced the Globes from a prime-time extravaganza to an awkward on-air reading of the winners, but the AMC party that night lasted well into the morning.
Even as the Mad Men team celebrated, AMC’s follow-up act was being hatched. Improbably enough, it was a pitch-black drama called Breaking Bad, about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth. Written by The X-Files’ Vince Gilligan, and in turnaround from FX, “it was dead in the water,” says Gilligan. His agent suggested a plan B: “Do you know AMC?”
“Yeah, I watch old movies on it,” Gilligan cracked. “Why don’t you send it to Food Network? It’s a show about cooking, after all.”
Gilligan agreed to a meeting, thinking “it would be a nice $14 Scotch and that’s it.” Instead, AMC not only ordered the pilot but offered Gilligan, who’d only had two episodes of The X-Files to his credit, to direct it. AMC liked the relatively subversive idea that the show’s protagonist would gradually become its antagonist. And the show fit the channel’s series-driving-movies concept perfectly. AMC launched Breaking Bad’s second season amid a monthlong festival of “antihero” movies—Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and the like—called “March Badness.”
At first, Breaking Bad seemed star-crossed. Its premiere had run against an ultrarare NFL double overtime; and because of the WGA strike, the first season had to wrap up in a mere seven episodes. Ironically, the short season and the long hiatus couldn’t have served Breaking Bad better. It took on the status of a hard-to-find gem, with many fans discovering it on DVD between seasons one and two. The second season’s premiere was watched by over 40 percent more viewers than the first season’s average. By the time the third season rolled around in 2010, Breaking Bad had four Emmys and a growing reputation as TV’s best drama since The Wire.