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AMC on track with 'Hell on Wheels,' 'Walking Dead'

September 1st, 2011 2:19 pm by Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — As every fan of "The Walking Dead" is well aware, this zombie-apocalypse drama will return for its much-awaited second season on Oct. 16. But AMC is announcing news that should bring delighted chills to any "Dead" devotee.

For starters, the season premiere won't be just an hour, but 90 creepy minutes.

The story resumes with the band of survivors fleeing zombie-overrun Atlanta and heading south for Fort Benning, Ga., 125 miles away, where they hope to find refuge at the U.S. Army post. But the group doesn't get far before meeting a new set of, um, challenges on a desolate stretch of four-lane.

In recent weeks, the show has been the subject of worrisome reports: a trimming of the budget and the abrupt departure of original showrunner Frank Darabont. But judging from an advance look at this closely guarded premiere, "Dead" remains full of life.

The episode includes a big-time zombie encounter and a stomach-churning interlude. Then the final scene packs a wallop.

"How about those last two minutes? Pretty cool, eh?" says Charlie Collier, sounding more like one fan reliving it with a fellow geek than like the president of AMC, which he also is.

During a conversation in his mid-Manhattan office earlier this week, Collier declines to get into the particulars of Darabont's exit, or to mention dollar figures connected with this 13-episode season's belt-tightening, but declares, "I would stack the budget up against probably any other in basic cable."

Last season's six episodes of "The Walking Dead" were created on a crash 10-month schedule to launch a long-sought-after series that could complement AMC's annual Fearfest marathon of horror films.

Now "Dead," which first appeared as a comic, has inspired its own companion piece, in the form of a new unscripted series aimed at comics "fanboys" of both genders. "Secret Stash" is a series from actor-filmmaker-comic-book-auteur Kevin Smith, who, perhaps best known for his indie classic "Clerks," also counts among his many ventures ownership of Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash comic book shop in Red Bank, N.J.

"Secret Stash" will be set at Smith's shop, whose vibe Collier likens to a comic-book geek's version of the neighborhood bar — an everybody-knows-your-name community of kindred spirits. There, the show promises to explore every nook and cranny of fanboy culture, with debates on arcane details of comic lore, the savoring of fanboy curios, and even an "Antiques Roadshow"-like valuation of items to be bought or sold.

These six one-hour episodes will air beginning in February, alongside the second half of the "Walking Dead" season, AMC announced to The Associated Press.

"I think AMC is at its best when it is super-serving a passionate fan," says Collier.

And there are rumors of yet another series to serve the "Dead" fan: a talk show to follow each episode and analyze its story developments. This "Dead" post-mortem (so to speak) was first reported by New York magazine's Vulture website. AMC isn't commenting.

But the network has other unscripted fare to announce.

"JJK Security" is a series about a small, family-owned private security company in rural Georgia whose staff seems hijacked from a Southern gothic sitcom — only quirkier.

Collier calls this a real-life mashup of Christopher Guest mockumentaries with the aesthetic of the Coen Brothers by way of Robert Altman. "'JJK Security' is what you get when you take all that and put it in an unscripted form of storytelling," he says.

This eight-part series is scheduled for fall 2012.

Joining these shows is the previously announced "The Pitch," which, slated for next spring, will probe the advertising industry. Each episode will follow ad agencies as they create new campaigns.

Collier hastens to assure the AMC faithful that his network isn't shifting its emphasis from the sort of scripted series that put it on the map, such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." Instead, he speaks of "layering on" an unscripted show to supplement like-minded films and dramas in the lineup.

"This is the next step in our evolution from a movie network to a network with movies at its core," he says. "But our commitment to scripted (programming), and taking risks with it, is unwavering."

AMC will unveil its latest original drama series, "Hell on Wheels," on Nov. 6.

Set in 1865, the 10-episode "Hell" focuses on former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), whose mission to pay back the Union soldiers who killed his wife carries him to the westward construction of the nation's first transcontinental railroad.

That epic building project is hailed by one character as a "mad, noble quest," which might apply to the series ambitious enough to depict it on the screen. With "Hell," there's mud, blood, sprawling landscapes, and conflict on a grand scale.

Says Collier, "We had been looking for two things since the day I walked in the door": the horror series "The Walking Dead" became, and a Western to build on the network's game-changing "Broken Trail," an original Western miniseries that aired in June 2006 and delivered nearly 10 million viewers over its two-night airing.

Since Collier's arrival, he has stewarded the network's almost breathtaking transformation from an outlet for movies to a wellspring for TV's most daring and acclaimed original drama. (And highly honored, with 29 Emmy nominations this year alone.)

Collier is lanky and boyish-looking at 42, with a high-rev manner and a Tommy-gun laugh. He boasts an Ivy League graduate degree in business and a background in network advertising sales. Now he runs a growing network.

"But I'm a fan, first," he insists. And his office bears him out.

It's stocked with movie DVDs and cinema books, zombie heads and action figures, plus a mounted-and-framed ax that played a memorable role on "Breaking Bad." There's also an expansive black-and-white art photo from a half-century ago that would strike a familiar chord in any "Mad Men" viewer: Glimpsed from behind, a suave executive is seated with his arm thrown nonchalantly on the back of his sofa, the inspiration for the signature "Mad Men" image of Don Draper captured in the same urbane pose.

The story of Draper, a circa-1960s New York ad man, "Mad Men" premiered in July 2007. "Breaking Bad," an ever-darker odyssey of a chemistry teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth, debuted the following January. Last summer, "Rubicon," a conspiracy thriller, won avid followers — just not enough of them — and was canceled after one season. But "The Walking Dead" arrived last Halloween to become the network's most popular series yet, with 6 million viewers for its season finale.

Then "The Killing" premiered in April with its bleakly penetrating probe into a Seattle teenager's murder and the shock waves such a crime sends through a community.

But when its finale aired in June without settling the much-hyped question "who killed Rosie Larsen?" fans howled: How dare AMC shortchange their allegiance by not clearly resolving the mystery by season's end, as promised? The fact is, "The Killing" executive producer Veena Sud had promised nothing of the sort, pointedly refusing to say if the mystery would spill into Season 2 or not. It didn't matter.

"Many were not thrilled with the conclusion," concedes Collier. "But we never meant to mislead anyone. We take our passionate fan base seriously."

Next season, he vows, "you will find out who killed Rosie Larsen. The conclusion to the murder and all that happens around it is going to be pretty special."

But the "Killing" backlash, along with viewer reaction to upheavals at "The Walking Dead," further crystallized a litany of beefs against a network that, until not long ago in the eyes of the audience and the media alike, could do no wrong.

A recent New York Times online story was headlined, "Could Things Break Any Worse for AMC?" And on Wednesday, the headline of a Vulture story asked: "After All Its Behind-the-Scenes Drama, What's Really Going On at AMC?"

As the Vulture article noted, "AMC's golden-child image has taken a beating in the press."

Even so, the noisy negotiations surrounding the future of "Breaking Bad" were settled recently with a commitment for 16 more episodes that should conclude its saga in style.

And after prolonged dickering, a deal was struck among "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner, AMC and the show's studio, Lionsgate, that should satisfy viewers. The show, and Weiner, will return for two more seasons, with an option for a final third.

To dispel persistent theories that the lengthy contract dispute led to "Mad Men" being uprooted from its summer berth and postponed for months — a situation Weiner, not to mention "Mad Men" fans, decried — Collier says the move is part of an overall strategy to benefit all the network's series. The plan has already paid off for "Breaking Bad," which, shifted from spring to its current summer slot, has scored significantly boosted ratings.

"Mad Men" will return in early 2012, and Collier says similarly it should thrive there.

Collier can't help but laugh, that lately his network is under the media microscope and taking loads of guff — a network that, four years ago, "couldn't get our phone calls returned, let alone have people talking about us."

But other things never change, he insists.

"We are so committed to everything that's gotten us here, including being the place where people bring their passion projects, and where we keep them, until the artist has told them to conclusion.

"We're above the timberline now. Things we're doing are getting noticed." Collier is smiling. "It's where we wanted to be."

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