In a disappointing but unsurprising move, AMC has declined to renew of “Rubicon,” the slow-burn conspiracy thriller that wrapped its first and only season a few weeks ago.
“‘Rubicon’ gave us an opportunity to tell a rich and compelling story, and we’re proud of the series,” AMC said in a statement (not attributed to any specific executive, as opposed to the various statements celebrating the huge “Walking Dead” ratings). “This was not an easy decision, but we are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a phenomenally talented and dedicated team.”
“Rubicon” had a troubled creative beginning. Creator Jason Horwitch quit after the pilot was produced over creative disagreements with the network. Producer Henry Bromell was brought in to run things and reorient the show a bit (he changed the central workplace, for instance, from a civilian think tank into an independent consultant for American intelligence), the first few episodes moved along at a crawl, and Bromell never quite figured out what to do with some elements Horwitch had introduced, like Miranda Richardson’s role as wealthy conspiracy widow Katherine Rhumor.
But within a few episodes, “Rubicon” began to find itself, focusing as much on the office – and the emotional cost of being an intelligence analyst – as on the conspiracy. The supporting characters – particularly Michael Cristofer as the delightfully-named conspiracy mastermind Truxton Spangler, Arliss Howard as an ex-spy of nebulous loyalty and Dallas Roberts as a twitchy analyst struggling to accept that he’d lost his family – became just as rich and compelling as our confused hero Will Travers (James Badge Dale), and the deliberate pace began to feel like an asset, not a liability. Thanks to an ominous score and beautiful cinematography by “Breaking Bad”s Michael Slovis, the series had a sense of atmosphere most dramas would kill for.
Unfortunately, the ratings were awful, particularly in the 18-49-year-old demographic that’s the lifeblood of the TV business. When “The Walking Dead” debuted to such big numbers, some readers asked if that was good news for “Rubicon” – did the zombie show’s success give AMC license to renew a (mostly) well-reviewed charity case? I felt it was the opposite. AMC already has a pair of dramas in “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” where the ratings aren’t commensurate with the critical praise (though both shows do a lot better than “Rubicon” did), and “The Walking Dead” success showed that the potential ceiling for an AMC drama was much higher than the followings for Don Draper and Walter White might have suggested. A network that’s destined to be a home of boutique dramas maybe can justify keeping around a terribly-rated show, but a network that knows that, with the right show and marketing, they can be actual ratings players wouldn’t necessarily want or need to bother with its fringe shows.
And I have to say that I’m much less broken up about this news than I would have been before I saw what turned out to be the “Rubicon” series finale, in which Bromell delivered a very unsatisfying end to the conspiracy story. It wasn’t so bad that it soured me on the series, but it was yet another reminder that the show was vastly stronger on mood and character than on plot, and it meant I would have gone into a a hypothetical second season with my expectations vastly lowered for any big story arc. (Bromell did say that a second season would have focused more on the day-to-day operations of the American Policy Institute, but there still would have been some kind of arc.)
“Rubicon” is a show that I liked but didn’t love at first, then got vastly better as it went along, but sputtered at the finish line. I’m glad I got to see it. I’m disappointed I won’t get to see any more of Spangler and Kale Ingram. But I understand the cancellation from a commercial position, and the finale made me less confident in the show’s creative long-term potential.