The numbers are in, and Low Winter Sun — the Detroit-based cop drama you probably haven't heard good things about — lost more than half of its Breaking Bad lead in. And that's even after AMC made everyone watch the first half of Sun before scenes from next week's Breaking Bad. It's not that surprising that audiences fled. The show relies too heavily on cop cliches and not enough on humor — even Mad Men is funny sometimes. But Sun didn't get the memo that prestige dramas are allowed, even encouraged, to lighten things up every so often. "It tries to make up for what it lacks in originality with unending bleakness," wrote Willa Paskin at Slate. The headline of Matthew Gilbert's review in the Boston Sun reads: 'Low Winter Sun' tries too hard, and Diane Garrett at The Wrap said it was like Breaking Bad, but "without bite or wit."
Before we all write this off as another Hell on Wheels, or worse, another Rubicon, let's gets some perspective. Low Winter Sun had 2.5 million viewers. Mad Men's series premiere had 1.2 million and Breaking Bad, which was riding on the former's critically acclaimed coat tails, only had 1.4 million. And while the first episode of Low Winter Sun has a Metacritic score or 57, it could still reach the relatively low (compared to future seasons) ratings of the first seasons of Mad Men and Breaking Bad — 77 and 74, respectively. Mad Men once had a small contingent of pretty vocal detractors and one critic thought the wildly popular Breaking Bad would, at best, be a small cult hit.
Mad Men: "all ambience and no action"
Mad Men premiered on July 19, 2007 (which was not a "prestige night" Sunday, but a Thursday) and while the general response was very positive, there were a few negative reactions that were brushed aside by the show's Emmy dominance. A short review from New York Magazine said "this series feel[s] like a fifties leftover, chock-full of unimportant secrets." Sacha Zimmerman at The New Republic said the show was "all ambience and no action" and that "corny references to the show's moment in time come thudding down on the viewer, alive with self-consciousness." Tom Shales at The Washington Post thought the show abounded in cliches, adding that "the stories unfold in a dry, drab way and the pacing is desultory" and the characters weren't interesting ("you find yourself in the company of people not one of whom is worth giving a hoot about"). A lot of those are complaints still voiced today, but less harshly. What critic today would, like Shales, dare say: "The costumes and sets are just ducky and highly evocative, but the people in and around them spoil the show, gum up the works and shatter veracity." Also, he thought Betty was the most sympathetic character.
Breaking Bad: "lacks Mad Men's originality and sparkle"
In a way, Breaking Bad and Low Winter Sun had the same problem — both were unfavorably compared to their predecessors. "Television follows the same pattern as fiction and families: The second novel and the middle child almost never live up to the expectations stoked by the first," Alessandra Stanley wrote in The New York Times. "It’s the pacing that makes Breaking Bad more of a hard slog than a cautionary joy ride. It has good acting," Stanley wrote, "But the misadventures of Walt and his slacker sidekick, Jesse (Aaron Paul), are a picaresque comedy filmed at the speed of a tragic opera." And, the most damning line of all: "Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, a writer and executive producer of The X-Files, couldn’t be more different from Mad Men, but it also lacks that series’s originality and sparkle." Shales wrote that cult hit status was the most Vince Gilligan could hope for, and white Troy Patterson at Slate enjoyed the premiere, he thought it was derivative and didn't live up to what it sought out to be. "Breaking Bad often tries to make like a Coen brothers' edition of Weeds," Patterson wrote. "Its achievement rarely matches its ambitions, but the effect is still pretty dope."
Low Winter Sun has its work cut out for it — it really is way too bleak — but it's too early to write it off just yet. Besides, not everyone hated it. "There are certainly hints of hope," writes Tim Goodman in The Hollywood Reporter. "The cast is strong, the writing has flashes of muscle mixed with nuance, and in the first two episodes you get the sense that a broader, complex and creative world is being developed." Who knows? In three years Goodman might be telling everyone "I told you so."