When AMC greenlit Mad Men and Breaking Bad in 2006 and 2007, respectively, it took a huge chance on first-time showrunners, unproven lead actors, and most notably, stories that pushed the audience unlike ever before.
Fast forward to 2013, and it’s clear the risk has paid off. AMC put itself on the map with Don Draper and Walter White, and further lucked out by discovering that in quality, its marquee shows were the inheritors of original Golden Age heavyweights like The Wire and The Sopranos. Unfortunately for HBO, on which these shows ran during the early to mid aughts, it’s clear they blew it by passing on Breaking Bad.
Now, imagine a world in which HBO read the pilots for these shows and then made the smart (and consistent, as they had been displaying an openness to more daring content) move by accepting them. How would these shows have been different?
Of course, the first thought that pops into any warm-blooded teenage boy’s mind is the freedom to work more nudity into any given scene. Mad Men fans can pause here to savor the thought of Christina Hendricks and January Jones baring it all for the camera—but quite frankly, who’s to say they would have signed on knowing the possibility of nudity existed? Furthermore, HBO casting executives might have had completely different criteria for each character than AMC did. Immediately, the world of Sterling Cooper would be dramatically changed. Maybe Jon Hamm wouldn’t have even made it as Don—God forbid.
Apply the same mode of thinking to Breaking Bad: would we follow Jesse into dark Albuquerque strip clubs during his bouts of circling the drain? Would the violence, blood, and gore in the show, already very present on AMC, kick into a higher gear and make Walt appear like even more of a monster? Would nudity and more violence add to the drama at all, or would those vices flood the show with unnecessary distractions?
Probably the most intriguing aspect of MM or BB on HBO is what the writers would have done with an extra 15 minutes per episode—now the equivalent of roughly an extra season of content for each show. Besides the obvious (room for additional plotlines), the pacing would be skewed, the cliffhangers would change, and without commercials, the structure of each episode would be dramatically altered.
Would this translate into a disaster? Not necessarily—it only seems that way because we fear change. Both shows are so good that the idea of changing anything seems absurd.
For networks, so much stock is put into what their “image” is. The original programming a given network airs is obviously a huge part of this. So when you toy with the idea of a beloved show from one network jumping ship to another, that feels a little odd. Given the right conditions, I think Mad Men and Breaking Bad would have been just fine if for some reason they had been moved to another home, but mid-career switches to a premium network like HBO would never have worked. That transfer could only happen if the shows moved to a cable channel like FX, with the same storytelling restrictions as AMC.
In fact, FX President John Landgraf has said that one of his biggest regrets is passing on Breaking Bad. I’m sure he would have snatched it up in a heartbeat if the season 5 skirmish between Gilligan and AMC didn’t work itself out.
Back to hypotheticals and the alternate fates for Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad and Matt Weiner’s Mad Men though. It’s the early 2000s. Let’s say that after getting turned away from the usual networks, the showrunners try their luck with HBO. On the success of risks like The Sopranos and The Wire, however, HBO feels daring and picks up both pilots. Breaking Bad goes on to win 17 Emmys over the course of a six-season run touted as “the bloodiest Western of our time,” and Mad Men takes home 23 Emmys, with Thomas Jane (???) winning 5 of a possible 7 best Actor awards. History is re-written.
In this twisted, mysterious universe, both shows see great success. With bigger budgets and more flexibility, Gilligan and Weiner take full advantage of a creative freedom not found anywhere else on TV. But viewing the dramas side by side with their real-world counterparts, one finds that they barely resemble one another. Same premises, but completely different execution. That’s the scary thing about changing one variable in history—seeing how much it can affect. In the alternate universe we’ve just painted, Walter White and Don Draper still claim crowns at the Round Table of TV greatness. In other universes, they could have been this and this, respectively.
Moral of the story: let’s all thank whatever higher being prevents us from seeing these alternate realities. It’s an interesting thought experiment — but nothing to pine over. Both shows could have been great on HBO, but they also could have tanked. Then we’d have never known worlds as gripping as the ones centered on 308 Negro Arroyo Lane and Sterling Cooper.
Now I can’t get the laugh track out of my head.