The premise of "The Walking Dead" is that any character can die, at any time.
Apparently that's true of "The Walking Dead's" showrunners as well.
Glen Mazzara didn't die, of course, but the showrunner/executive producer has left the series, which has unsurprisingly been renewed for a fourth season. Various parties released statements saying how this was all for the best, but that's meaningless. Even if AMC had actually chopped off his head, Mazzara would have released a statement thanking the network, because that's how things work in Hollywood. Creative people and executives put the best face on everything, even if they have knives sticking out of their backs.
In any case, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that the management of AMC has no time for the cult of the showrunner that has grown up in the television industry. Consider the events of the past couple of years:
- John Shiban, the showrunner brought in for the second season of "Hell on Wheels" after the first season's creative leaders departed, has also left that show, which just recently got its third showrunner in three seasons, John Wirth.
- In 2011, negotiations over "Breaking Bad's" final season got so toxic that the show's studio, Sony, publicly broached the idea of shopping it elsewhere.
- That same year, negotiations over the contract of "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner grew so heated that the idea of Weiner exiting and another writer being brought in by the network was publicly floated.
- Before that, "The Walking Dead" endured its first big round of controversy when the man who shepherded the project to television, writer/director Frank Darabont, departed amid much surprise and acrimony.
- The contrast to all that off-screen drama is the network's steadfast loyalty to Veena Sud, showrunner of "The Killing," a drama that didn't do all that well for the network ratings-wise and has been a critical punching bag for much of its run. It was canceled after the conclusion of its second soggy season, but in yet another move that caused head-scratching in the media, AMC decided to revive the show for a third season. I speculate that's because the drama -- and possibly Sud -- didn't cost much, not because the world was clamoring to have it back.
In my mind, a lot of what the network has done in the last few years boils down to this: "Showrunners. Who needs them?"
Alan Sepinwall's well-regarded new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," is, in many ways, a history of the rise of the television auteur. Of the 12 shows profiled in the book, most were the product of the particular creative vision of one individual. Of course those visionaries always had a great deal of help to execute and flesh out those visions (and the shows themselves may have had evolutions in creative leadership over time), but the book is, in many ways, about how the television landscape was altered by the particular obsessions, artistry and insights of writers like Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Shawn Ryan, David Chase, David Milch, Joss Whedon and others.
This is just my two cents, but AMC appears to think that that kind of creative talent is more trouble (and possibly more money) than its worth.
To play devil's advocate here for a second: Are they right?
AMC originally developed TV shows to go along with its library of old movies; they didn't necessarily set out to beat HBO at its awards-gathering game. Executives there wanted some programming that would help them stay on cable subscribers' radar and work well alongside their film offerings. Hence the network commissioned a retro drama that evokes classic Hollywood ("Mad Men"), a dark, gritty thriller ("Breaking Bad"), a Western ("Hell on Wheels"), a crime drama ("The Killing") and a horror franchise ("The Walking Dead"). (Its spy drama, "Rubicon," which had two showrunners in its first season, didn't get renewed.)
AMC wanted an array of shows that work go with its film library, and it got them. As it stands now, the network appears to want the shows more than it wants any individual to execute a particular vision. It's about the product, not about the auteur.
As others have pointed out, the massive success of "The Walking Dead" brings to mind the enormous success of "Star Wars" in the late '70s. In the '60s and '70s, as the studio system crumbled, a group of bold young filmmakers were given opportunities, and they ended up creating a set of classic movies -- many of them weird, raw, heartfelt, personal and unusual. But once the studios saw how much money they could make from movies that came with merchandising tie-ins and Happy Meal toys, that era began to wind down. And now we're in an age in which there are a lot of tentpole movies each year and one or two dozen movies aimed at sentient adults.
I love all things genre, don't get me wrong. But I so don't want that to happen in television.
As Sepinwall points out in his book, when studios stopped making mid-budget movies, a lot of the talent that would have made those movies migrated to television, and we're all much richer for it. If TV relentlessly chases after the broad crowd-pleasers, where will the creative talent go next? To the web? To Netflix or Amazon? Possibly; it's not clear yet what those platforms will add to the storytelling realm.
Mainstream appeal isn't a bad thing: I enjoy a big, well-executed hit as much as the next person. But I want TV to keep taking chances on weird, unusual and passionately idiosyncratic offerings, in part because sometimes those things do become left-field successes ("Lost," "24," and even "Breaking Bad" all ended up being different kinds of hits), but also because I'm afraid of what it'll become if it begins to treat all creative voices as cogs in a big machine. At this point, I have more faith in the model FX and HBO have followed with "Louie" and "Girls" respectively -- distinctive voices do their own things on limited budgets -- than I do in the AMC just-making-widgets business plan.
We're not quite at the point where we're getting a zombie head in our Happy Meals, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that the success of "The Walking Dead" has emboldened the network that airs it. The network's slogan is "Story Matters Here," but as I said on Twitter earlier, maybe it should be "My Way or the Highway." (Or, as Cory Barker suggested, "Can You Take a Pay Cut?")
All the showrunner follies may well scare off other creative talent (Shawn Ryan's tweet is evidence of that), but it's hard to conclude that storytellers matter to AMC. I wonder if they matter to other networks as well. For quite some time now, USA, TNT and TBS have followed the path of safely formulaic programming (and they have done very well with that). Look at Syfy: It has not bothered with anything nearly as ambitious as "Battlestar Galactica" and has settled for a range of cheap dramas and even cheaper reality shows. AMC has gone the reality route itself, commissioning a range of filler shows that haven't done much for the network's brand.
But what is AMC's brand? Is it the kind of subtle, artistic, complicated dramas that are ending in the next year or two? I have a feeling we should enjoy "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" while they last, because it's possible we won't see their like on the network again. If nothing else, those bringing pilots and projects to AMC shouldn't count on much job security.
The network will always be able to find bodies to put into its open positions, and I tend to think this will lead to diminishing returns. Mazzara did excellent work on "The Walking Dead," and righting that ship could not have been easy. Whether or not AMC turns entirely away from auteurs, competent showrunners who can parachute in and make the trains run on time are not a dime a dozen. But given the number of hungry writer/producers eager to make their mark on the industry, the new hires will keep on coming.
Just like zombies, there are always more of them.
But there's no telling whether they'll have braiiins.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan