I think AMC may be going through a bit of an identity crisis.
Ten years ago, the network was best known for showing a small number of movies ad nausea, with a very liberal definition of the word “classic.” I love Top Gun as much as any girl of the 80s – especially that volleyball scene – but I don’t know that I would put that in the canon of classic films. AMC used to be a place that I’d stop at as I was flipping through the channels; I’d watch a few minutes of The Fugitive or True Lies, two movies that the network has in heavy rotation, but then continue on to whatever it was that I was looking for. It was by no means destination television.
That all changed in 2007 when AMC dipped its toe into original programing with a little show called Mad Men. They struck gold again in 2008 with the debut of Breaking Bad. These shows became critical hits and cultivated a small but devoted following. Suddenly AMC was the place to go for prestige dramas and became a real rival to the original programming by HBO and Showtime. They went from the network best known for having The Highlander in heavy rotation on their schedule to the network that was cleaning up at the Emmys.
As the network evolved, there were a few missteps along the way; Rubicon was a slow moving espionage program that I enjoyed but wasn’t surprised to see cancelled and though it has its fans, I think that The Killing is pretty dreadful. Hell on Wheels never really took off and the show has been sitting in limbo due to some behind the scenes creative differences (a reoccurring theme at AMC – they have had more than their fair share of problems with the creative people on their shows. The Walking Dead is already on their third showrunner.). If it weren’t for the monster success of The Walking Dead, a show that I think is OK but not great, the meteoric rise of AMC may have been followed with a rapid decline.
Along with the development of new dramas, AMC has also begun to dabble in the world of reality programing. Their first few forays have tried to cash in on the success of their other programs; The Pitch was clearly an attempt to do a “real-life Mad Men” and Comic Book Men has at least a loose connection to The Walking Dead, which is based on, in my opinion, a vastly superior series of graphic novels. Sadly, they never got around to doing a reality show about real life meth dealers. When the network rolled out Small Town Security, which followed a bunch of odd characters working at a private security company, it seemed like something of an aberration. It was a bizarre little show and didn’t seem to fit with the audience that the network seemed to be trying to cultivate. I assumed that the network was just trying to branch out a little and that they saw reality programming as a way to increase their line-up of original shows without a lot of cost; zombie make-up is not cheap and Matt Weiner’s deal to do another season of Mad Men is rumored to be pretty lucrative.
However, based on the two new reality shows that AMC is unveiling on Valentine’s Day, I’m beginning to think that they are no longer in the business of the prestige drama. I have a very hard time believing that the people who are watching Breaking Bad and Mad Men will be tuning in for Freakshow and Immortalized. Actually, I’m not sure who the audience is for these new shows period. AMC is clearly doubling down on programs featuring weird people.
Freakshow is something of a workplace/family reality show as it follows the people who work at and run the Venice Beach Freakshow (their terminology, not mine). The freakshow is run by the Ray family and features a little person, the second tallest man in the U.S., a body modification artist and a bunch of people that do all sorts of unsettling stunts. The episode that I saw was actually the second in the series, rather than the pilot, so there was not a lot of character or background information given. I assume all of that is unpacked in the earlier episode, though I don’t know how much background is really necessary. The sword swallowers were the focus of the show I watched, as they try to outdo each other with stunts for the audience. There is also the usual old school/new school tension as the more seasoned performers are turned off by the brashness and confidence of the newer performers. The episode also followed Asia Ray, the 20 year old daughter of the owners, as she learned how to become a sword swallower with the help of resident performer Morgue.
I’ll be honest: I just don’t get people’s fascination with stuff like this, not do I understand why a person would want to put themselves in harm’s way by performing the stunts that they do, for what I assume is very little money. I kind of feel like freakshows should have disappeared a long time ago; they are definitely a throwback to a different time. I think it is great that people are different and if this is what they want to do with their lives, I don’t think they should be stopped. I simply don’t understand it. I can’t imagine waking up one day and thinking “I wonder if I can put that shove something that is on fire into my mouth.” Maybe I simply lack imagination. Maybe I am a wimp; I am, after all, one of the only people I know who has no tattoos and no piercings (including my ears – that freaks people out). But this kind of stuff just doesn’t do it for me.
I did find it kind of interesting to see how a person learns to swallow a sword, even if I don’t get the motivation behind it. I’m glad to see that there is some sort of gradual process for training your body to safely do such a thing, though I don’t know that ramming a coat hanger down your throat makes it any more appealing. In fact, I was surprised that I had a physical reaction to watching the sword swallowers; every time someone put a sword down their throat, I found myself involuntarily gagging a little like someone was shoving a sword down my throat. Even just thinking about it as I was writing this paragraph made my throat hurt. With my affinity for horror and ultra-violent movies, I was not expecting to have any response. But apparently even I have my limits; I can watch a guy cut out his own tongue with piano wire, but sword swallowing freaks me out. Maybe it is the reality of the latter that bothers me. Whatever the reason, that was a stressful thirty minutes of television watching.
AMC’s other program was even odder to me, if you can believe that. While I may not get freakshows, I at least knew that they existed. After all, I did go to the same college and graduate school as The Lizardman. But I was completely unaware that there was such a thing as an underworld of competitive taxidermy, which Immortalized tries to shine a light on in a ridiculous show that takes far too many cues from Iron Chef.
Now taxidermy kind of freaks me out as well; my grandfather used to have a stuffed squirrel – I have no idea where it came from – that both fascinated and repulsed me. When it wound up in our house after he died (“squirrled” away in the basement), I would always walk past it with apprehension. I don’t know if I was afraid that it would suddenly come to life, the side effect of watching too many horror movies, or if the idea of keeping something dead in your house just seemed creepy to me. Whatever the reason, it gives me the willies. And don’t even get me started on people who have their family pets preserved after the pet has died. That’s a whole other layer of crazy.
Immortalized has two people that excel in the world of taxidermy compete against each other. The show has four “Immortalizers,” their version of Iron Chefs, that take turns facing off against challengers. Each week, the two taxidermists are given a theme and then sent home to create a piece that best reflects that theme. They are then judged on originality, craftsmanship and interpretation of the theme. I honestly think watching paint dry would be more entertaining.
First off, the show takes itself WAY too seriously. I get that taxidermy is important to these people; again, I don’t get why, but different things speak to different people. But the whole “Immortalizers” gimmick is ridiculous. These expert taxidermists enter the arena from behind giant placards of their faces that the camera jumps between to try and hype up the anticipation of which person the challenger will face. They also insist on referring to the expert using the Immortalizer title – when they speak to one of the experts, they actually call him “Immortalizer Bob.”
Since each challenger goes home to their own studio, there really isn’t a lot of drama associated with the process. It is unclear how long they have to complete their piece, but they certainly seem to be moving at a pretty lackadaisical pace. Things just seem more exciting and compelling when people are running around trying to beat the clock. You also don’t see very much of their process – a few vague sketches and then some fiddling around with molds and fur. I’m not really disappointed with that development, as I’m sure it all gets pretty gross, but the end result of the editing and limited “behind the scenes” shots is a show that isn’t very compelling or exciting. The host said that you could “cut the tension with a knife” during the unveiling, but I was mostly trying to stifle a yawn. I just didn’t care who won and the stakes seemed pretty low to me.
Some other quick thoughts:
- I was very disappointed that at no point during Freakshow did the employees find the opportunity to chant “One of us! One of us!” from the 1932 classic horror film Freaks.
- Despite myself, I did have to laugh when the host ended Immortalized by saying “In this competition, you have to bring your own game.”
- I am really curious what a freakshow performer is paid. I’m guessing it’s not that much, though I’d be hard pressed to come up with any dollar amount that would seem appropriate.
- I did find myself eyeing my cat Pumpkin a little differently after watching Immortalized, though I have no intention of having him stuffed. He would look magnificent though.
Neither of these programs is in my wheel house and I didn’t have much confidence that I would be a fan of either before I even sat down to watch them. I am more perplexed by this new direction that AMC seems to be venturing in; I don’t know what their end game is exactly. The network that airs Mad Men and Breaking Bad isn’t really the same network of freak shows and taxidermy. I’m not saying that there isn’t an audience for these programs – I’m sure these shows appeal to some people – but I’ll be very interested to see where AMC winds up after Breaking Bad and Mad Man end their runs in the next year or so. AMC may very well revert to a channel that I simply skip by most of the time.
Freakshow and Immortalized debut on Thursday February 14th at 9:30 and 10 pm (ET) respectively.