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Rubicon Cancelled

By James Beale
December 9, 2010

Mighty AMC has finally struck out.

The network cancelled the stylish, slow burn thriller "Rubicon;" the first of their critically acclaimed shows to be cancelled.

The first reason, and biggest, is the ratings. "Rubicon" averaged around 1.26 million viewers per episode, following the usual parabola shape for a television season. Still, this is better than either of their darlings "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad" had in their debut seasons.

True, now AMC has a reputation for high-quality dramas, so the bar should be higher, and it is. But even this year's "Breaking Bad," one of the best television seasons ever, only netted 1.52 million viewers on average.

The true issue with the numbers is in the 18-49 demographic - "Rubicon" only had a .2 rating, compared to the .7 of the others. This means the show pandered more to the CBS crowd than the MTV crowd, and the younger viewers are what advertisers are going after.

The ratings for both "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" have gone up every season, with many viewers only hearing about the shows at the Emmys or waiting to see how they pan out on DVD. "Rubicon" never had this chance.

Some of the ratings failures have to be attributed to the show's quality as well. "Rubicon," in the vein of 70s conspiracy thrillers, dealt with members of an American think tank, making important decisions worldwide while discovering a massive cover-up.

The pacing of the first few episodes were slow, even by "Mad Men" standards, and critics promptly called the show out. Creator Jason Horwitch was booted off the show and Henry Bromell was promoted, and after this, the show fell into a steady rhythm - focusing on the characters while the conspiracy plot sifted in the background.

Critics who stuck with the show enjoyed it more as it went on, but after a flat-footed finale, the old complaints came back. In short, viewers weren't swayed by critical acclaim at the start or the end of the season.

Also, even at its best, "Rubicon" was never at "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad" status. The characters grew considerably throughout the season, but the Katherine Rhumor subplot was a dead end, wasting the talents of a great actress, Miranda Richardson.

"Rubicon" will probably join the ranks of shows that were deemed too smart for its time, whether that's fair or not. In particular, episodes five through 12, culminating in the mesmerizing "Wayward Sons," will be remembered as an excellent way to build to a devastating conclusion.

But the biggest reason "Rubicon" was cancelled may be AMC's fourth original drama series - "The Walking Dead." On Halloween, it premiered to a massive response, including 5.3 million viewers where 2.6 million were in the 18-49 demographic, and universal acclaim from the get-go.

Furthermore, the show's season finale drew over 6 million viewers, and the series averaged 3.5 million 18-35 viewers, a new record for basic cable. Remember the 200,000 for "Rubicon"?

The success of "The Walking Dead" is easy to explain, whereas all three other shows have difficult draws: "Mad Men" has intricate character and social studies, "Breaking Bad" has intricate moral dilemmas, "Rubicon" had intricate policy decisions and "The Walking Dead" has zombies.

One bit of concern for AMC's new darling, though; creator Frank Darabont (director of "The Shawshank Redemption") fired the entire writing staff, apparently feeling he wanted more control over the series' sometimes clichéd dialogue. This would indicate next season there will be more freelancers writing episodes instead of a dedicated writing staff, so cohesiveness may be sacrificed.

It's hard to care about next season right now since those ratings blew every other AMC show out of the water, and even beat the old guard, HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." "The Walking Dead" has already been renewed for a second season, ensuring that AMC will be batting .750 with drama series.

Any network would give anything to have that success. AMC is still the home of the best drama on television. But it could've been a little bit better by letting "Rubicon" strike out swinging next season, at the very least.

Comments (10)

So disappointed! My 14-year-old and I just loved this show. You made a good point. Unfortunately, the show was probably too smart for its time.

nmstahls | December 10, 2010 2:36 PM

My wife and I watched the whole thing, and will miss it. Two things in particular were marks of good quality:

The soundtrack music built suspense without being overbearing or cliched, and was also nice to listen to.

The camera work and direction allowed the scenes to speak for themselves without that nauseating shot-shot-shot that ruins so many shows, where no shot lasts more than about one second.
(Why do so many video operators think that they are required to add something to the show, rather than to allow the script and actors to do their best in telling the story?)

Dennis Chamberlin | December 13, 2010 5:37 PM

2 things: 1) this is why it is good to wait til a show airs 5 hears before I get involved nowadays and 2) AMC should of let people watch it either on HULU or their web site to get people hooked. I liked the first 2 episodes but then missed 2 and didn't want to jump in after missing so much.

wokawoka | December 13, 2010 9:05 PM

Given dvr's and the possibility of saving programs and skipping commercials, I wonder if anyone has done any studies of the demographics of viewers for different age groups and shows(?).

However, I guess I already know the answer to that. The KISS principle dominates sales, including advertising, and tv programming.

Paul F | December 15, 2010 10:25 AM

Dennis - I agree with the style. The show was unique in that the actors really were on center stage without a lot of overbearing work from the postproduction team. Most of the AMC shows have long shots, and when I watch a procedural I literally get a headache.

To the last two commenters: We're going through a weird transition phase right now in television (and most media). The old system, of advertising revenues being the main source of income, is being challenged by DVRs, OnDemand, Hulu, etc. AMC has never streamed any of their episodes online, I suppose, because they think they can make the old model work for a little while longer. Unfortunately for AMC, people expect episodes to be online through their websites now (they're always online illegally, of course), so they will lose viewers that way.

TV shows are going online eventually. I think there will be more advertisements put in the shows online, but soon everything will be available. Whether a premium service (like Hulu Plus) is the answer or just targeting ads towards a consumer's preferences is, that is the future. We're just in this weird phase right now where the majority of under-21s get their television through the Internet, and the majority of 40+s get it the normal way.

I was going to write my next column on this type of thing anyway, so stay tuned.

James Beale | December 15, 2010 9:43 PM

I really wated to like Rubicon, but it kept making very questionable decisions. The Mulder haircut, the nonsensical staff dramas, the painful writing (especially in dialogue, but also in plot points) and the vapid nature of every clue and twist just left a feeling of hollow frustration. THe performances were quite good, and the cinematography was often extraordinary, and the tone they kept trying to achieve was beguiling, but couldn't overcome the lethargy of the plot nor the arbitrary and perfunctory nature of the subplots. I hope everyone treats it as a learning experience and goes on to greatness.

Proteus | January 2, 2011 4:52 PM

So I guess AMC just doesn't care about "older" viewers. I think the people that criticized this show just didn't get it. I liked not knowing where it was going. All too often my wife and I can accurately predict where a show or movie is going, or where it will end. This one played more to real life, not the simplistic representations of drama that are far too common and have, frankly, caused me to stop watching television. I was addicted to Rubicon. I thought AMC had done something truly worth watching.

Keith Eubanks | January 17, 2011 10:52 AM

Apparently the Heads of Entertainment in the US don't want their citizens to think too much.

AMC - Censorship | March 6, 2011 12:35 PM

I agree with Keith. I loved Rubicon and can't believe they cancelled it and just left us hanging. I was really looking forward to Season 2 and had heard nothing about the possibility of the show being cancelled. I hate shows that are predictable and Rubicon made us all think and try to figure out the outcome. I loved the show and even taped it to keep, but now it has no ending.

Shirley Rowden | April 13, 2011 12:39 PM