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What is the secret of AMC's success?

There may be more than one answer to the question "what do advertising executives have in common with drug dealers and the undead", but only one has three letters: AMC.

When the execs in question are those of award- munching series Mad Men, the drug dealers are led by Breaking Bad’s consecutive Emmy winning actor Bryan Cranston, and the undead are shuffling after former This Life star Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, things start to make a little more sense. All of these shows have been - and continue to be - major successes in the UK whether on screen or through DVD sales, and they’re all from the stable of US cable channel AMC.

In a country where we’re used to consuming the latest products of HBO (think Sex and The City, The Sopranos, The Wire and, more recently, Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones) and Showtime (Dexter, Weeds, Homeland), while seeing those imports divided between our native channels, it’s easy to ignore where our favourite shows come from. However, the arrival of AMC’s latest original series, Hell On Wheels, illustrates just how far the channel has come in a few short years.

The network started life in 1984 as the American Movie Classics channel, designed to churn out films from the golden age of Hollywood all day long. It’s a bit ironic, then, that epic western series Hell On Wheels is the latest in a long line of original programming from a network that built its success on identikit Wild West movies. Perhaps even more so that it’ll be the first series on Turner Classic Movies who churn out . . . well, you guessed it.

AMC (who have conspicuously dropped the use of their full name) did dip their toe into original programming with Remember WENN in 1996, a series set at a fictional 1940s radio station, but it wasn’t until 2007 that they struck gold with a slow-moving period drama (allegedly rejected by both HBO and Showtime) that we now all know and love as Mad Men.

Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC, has overseen the network’s transformation, and has said that it’s precisely this desire to do things differently that has made AMC a success.

Five years ago, we had no scripted originals on our air. In the summer of 2007, we launched Mad Men and we followed that up with Breaking Bad. At the time, you had people saying, "Is AMC in this for the long haul?" We maintained, not only are we, but we are trying to do the kind of diverse projects that were really seen only on premium television. Our stated goal then, and it's still on my board now, is to produce premium television for basic cable.

The "premium" versus "basic" distinction is essentially the difference between subscriber-funded HBO and advertising-supported AMC, but, again, Collier would tell you that ignoring the conventional model is what has created some of the best television of recent times.

Here's a network that has questioned everything that networks have done conventionally and succeeded. Would anyone tell you to take a moody period piece and turn it into a serialised drama on cable? And then would they tell you to take a modern-day story about a high school chemistry teacher who deals crystal meth and make that you're follow up ad-supported lead? And the answer is no, but we did it.

Indeed they did, and after following up Mad Men with Breaking Bad, they had further success with The Walking Dead in 2010, before Hell On Wheels launched in the US in November as AMC’s second highest original series premiere with the all- important second series already in production.

That’s not to say it’s all been perfect, and, sandwiched between Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, came a re- make of The Prisoner and then Rubicon, both of which died out over here on ITV1 and BBC4 respectively.

Furthermore, AMC’s commitment to doing things differently saw them bravely take on remake duties with international critics' favourite, Forbrydelsen  failing even to beat a repeat of Law & Order on Channel 5.

Still, a quick look at current TV schedules shows AMC’s impact, with Mad Men, The Killing and The Walking Dead all currently airing here and Breaking Bad season 3 arriving shortly on DVD (14 May). Hell on Wheels could well be another hit, with an impressively cinematic scope, scenery- chewing characters and the requisite balance of sharp dialogue, gore and intrigue. It’s even got an unknown actor as the steely- eyed lead with a mysterious past - now where have we seen that before? We’re looking at you, Jon Hamm.

As for why AMC’s shows have been so warmly received over here, it might be a little too easy to look to the network’s mantra of "story matters here", but it’s Hamm himself who articulates the secret: “There are a million different channels, and everyone is doing original programming now. But part of rising above the noise is having something different to say or a different approach.”

The cast and crew of AMC's Mad Men at the 2011 Emmy Awards (Photo: Getty Images)
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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