Saturday at the TCA Winter Press Tour: End of an Era, Start of a New One

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This is, as AMC is quick to remind us, the end of an era.

It’s there emblazoned on screens showing retrospective Mad Men clips. It’s there printed on the sides of the Mad Men mugs set out for TV critics at the TCA winter press tour. It’s mentioned several times in the introduction to the show’s panel, driving home the point that we’re here to bid farewell to the show that according to president Charlie Collier “put AMC on the map” and ushered in a period of excellent cable drama.

We now have a date for the beginning of the end—April 5 at 10 p.m. EST is when season 7B will premiere—and creator Matt Weiner said that each of the remaining seven episodes will feel like a finale. This being Mad Men, of course, that was the closest we got to any sort of plot revelation, and most of the panel was a celebration of the series, with Weiner and all of the original principal cast members—Jon Hamm, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser—reflecting on the show (which has already wrapped production).

“There’s no version of this ending that’s not super painful for me,” Hamm said, “and mostly it’s because of these people”—here he pointed to the rest of the cast—”and this person”—waving towards Weiner this time—”because they’ve been the single constant in my creative life for the last decade. So that’s kind of tough.” That said, he spent much of the show’s session cracking jokes and keeping it light, answering a question about his post-Mad Men career plans with “Car detailing. I’ve started a little job. By the way, it’s at the valet. So if anybody needs it, I will seriously wash your car.”

Weiner admitted that although production on the show has already wrapped, he’s only now beginning to get a sense of closure, saying, “I don’t think I’ll ever let it go. I mean, I’ve just started seeing episodes for different purposes and not seeing all the lights and hair and makeup and everything and not seeing the set and actually being in the story. For me, there’s a perfection in my mind when we finish the script, when it’s in its written obscure state and we go to that table read and there’s no nothing except for the pure character and those people in that world. And the idea that it was elevated from that and became real, I’ve never gotten over that.”

But as we close the books on one era of AMC drama, there’s another new chapter unfolding with Better Call Saul. Obviously being a Breaking Bad spinoff means the show will have some serious tie’s to the network’s past, but during the panel, show runners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould insisted that Better Call Saul will have its own feel. They also revealed that while the potential for Breaking Bad favorites to show up certainly is there, we shouldn’t expect Walt and Jesse to show up out of the gate.

“I think it is a very natural question, a good question, how many characters from the Breaking Bad world may or may not appear on Better Call Saul as it goes forward,” Gilligan said. “I have to admit that a big part of the fun for us I think you would agree, Peter, in setting the series as a prequel six years earlier is that it allows the sky to be the limit in the sense that all the characters who are deceased when Breaking Bad ends could theoretically show up. Although, like Michael [McKean] said, Jesse would be tricky because I think he would be in late middle school or maybe high school.”

“In the spirit of full disclosure, Walt and Jesse will not appear in Season 1,” Gould added. “We want this to really stand on its own. We don’t want to mislead people into expecting something that’s not going to happen. Walt and Jesse don’t show up in Season 1. Having said that, everything else is on the table.”

As the day went on, other networks seem to be prepared to usher in new eras as well, with TVLand announcing plans to cater to a younger generation and shift its focus from Baby Boomers to Generation X, evidenced by the aptly named new series Younger, which stars Sutton Foster as a 40-year-old woman who poses as a 26-year-old to get a publishing job, where cross-generational hijinks presumably ensue. Nickelodeon seems to be looking even further into the future, referring to their target audience in their presentation as “post-millennials” (which I’m pretty sure is just a fancy way of saying “kids”?).

Nowhere was it more apparent, however, that we’re entering a new era of TV—a golden age of absurd comedy, perhaps—than at the Comedy Central panels. The sizzle reels for Another Period, a historical spoof starring Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome as spoiled socialites in the 1900s, and Big Time in Hollywood FL, created by Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf and featuring Cuba Gooding Jr. as a fictionalized version of himself, drew the first real laughs of the day.

Gooding Jr. said he had reservations about playing himself before joining the series but was won over when he saw the reaction it got from his sons.

“My agents called me and they said you have this offer to do this series on Comedy Central. Ben Stiller’s involved in it, actually has a role in it, and they want you to play a role,” he said. “I said, ‘Okay. Great. Send it.’ ‘Well, before you read it, just understand, they want you to play yourself. They want you to play the character of Cuba Gooding, Jr.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t do that. I don’t feel comfortable doing that.’ I don’t feel comfortable playing myself because I want people to take the next role I do as the role and not Cuba Gooding, Jr. And they were like, ‘We get it, but just watch the pilot.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ And I watched it with my two sons, Spencer and Mason. They were 18 and 20, and I laughed harder watching them laugh at it than I did the pilot. It was just one of those wonderful moments where I was like, ‘I am old now, because this is brilliant.’ And I met with them, and after I met with them, I said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do because I trust you all now,’ and I think their team is a team of trust.”

It’s obvious too that the network has great trust in Larry Wilmore to take over The Colbert Report’s timeslot with The Nightly Show and begin a new era of late-night on Comedy Central. In his panel, Wilmore stressed that his show will focus on “discussion news” rather than formats we’ve seen before on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

“I’m not interested in, like, doing a show where I give my opinion and I have people react to my opinion,” Wilmore said. ”’I think blah blah blah. Now, what do you think?’ I’m more inquisitive. I want to find out what something is about. So our show is more in discovery of things. So that’s what I thought with the writing staff. I want people who are going to teach me something about things. I want to learn about their world, bring that to the show because that’s what I want to create in the show. And even for our audience, we want to introduce people to them who maybe they hadn’t seen. So rather than have your normal kind of pundits like you’ll see on shows where it’s on the left and the right you already know what they’re going to say, you already know what their conclusions are, we’ll have people on who, maybe their minds get changed. Certainly I’m like that. Or maybe we’ll have a different type of discussion where people aren’t pitted against each other, but they’re pitted against an idea or subject matter or that sort of thing.”

It’s a fitting concept for a day that seemed to pit old ideas up against new. As we transition from cable to network TV in the next few days at the TCAs, it’ll be interesting to see if that trend holds up and the big three (CBS, ABC, NBC) are just as willing to shake things up. We’ll be at the TCAs all this week, so stay tuned for more coverage from Pasadena in the coming days.