Has it really been ten years since the premiere of Breaking Bad?
I remember first hearing about this show around the time it debuted – and details were sparse. The dad from Malcolm in the Middle was playing a drug dealer or something. Despite my great love of all things Malcolm, I rolled my eyes and moved on.
A few years later, I found myself rapidly catching up on what had by then become one of the most popular and fervently-discussed shows on the Interwebs. What had begun as a little-watched show on a little-watched network had transformed into a pop-culture sensation – if you weren’t watching Breaking Bad, you weren’t in the loop. The praise and attention lavished on this series lasted all the way up to the series finale, which generated even more media attention than the respective finales of Friends and Lost.
And the show continues to thrive, years after its conclusion. New fans continually discover it through DVDs and Netflix. A spinoff, Better Call Saul, has generated nearly as much critical success as its parent series. The phrase “Say my name” has become an Internet meme for the ages.
The influence of Breaking Bad on the television landscape cannot be denied. But, looking back at the series a decade on, one must wonder – has this influence been for the better?
It sounds like a silly question. But looking at the myriad ways that television has shifted in the last few years, I can’t help feeling like most modern dramas learned the wrong lesson from the show that broke the ground for them.
Lets’ start at the ostensible beginning: Television’s antihero era was kicked off by The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999 and ran, on-and-off, for much of the 21st century’s inaugural decade. Though it gave rise to a slew of other antihero shows during its run, including The Shield and Dexter, few could argue that David Chase’s mob-city drama was the leader of the pack, in terms of both influence and wide acclaim.
Much of TV drama in the 2000s owed something to The Sopranos. Television began to take on a more cynical and nihilistic tone, keeping in line with the altered mood of the country after 9/11. Shows also began to put more stock into heavier serialization and more complicated arcs, both on the broadcast networks (24, Lost) and cable (The Wire, Battlestar Galactica).
The end of The Sopranos in June 2007 seemed to mark the end of an era – HBO didn’t have any substantial hits to pick up the slack (and would not find one until Game of Thrones in 2011), while none of the other cable networks had produced a show that could equal it in renown.
A few weeks later, the little-watched AMC entered the prestige drama field. It kicked things off with Mad Men, an acclaimed period piece and an influential drama in its own right. But it began to foretell a new era of popular and acclaimed television with its next venture.
Breaking Bad premiered in January 2008, to positive critical reception but unimpressive viewing numbers. Its first season was cut short by the infamous WGA strike, hampering its chances of survival even further. But AMC was new to the TV game, and was willing to give it a chance.
From its earliest episodes, Breaking Bad had clear Sopranos DNA – white middle-aged family man engaged in criminal activity, rationalizing his actions even when the motives behind them were at their grayest. But the more the show developed, the clearer it became that Breaking Bad was transitioning television towards a new wave of dramatic storytelling.
Like most of its precedents, Breaking Bad told a linear story – but unlike many others, it was one with a definitive start and end point. Vince Gilligan famously pitched the show as “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface,” and that singular explanation gave the show a backbone which maintained for its entire five-season run.
TV seemed to have mastered the art of serialization by the time the 2010s dawned, but Breaking Bad indicated just how far it could go. The show was a master of momentum – not only did consequences build from episode to episode, but stakes consistently raised from season to season. (Only at the start of the show’s final season – which was unwisely split into two halves – were Gilligan and co. forced to take a momentary breather.)
It would be incorrect to state that Breaking Bad invented the age of binge-watching – daylong TV marathons had been around for years before its debut – but no other series before it demonstrated the power of the binge. Watching multiple episodes in one sitting arguably improved the overall experience, allowing plot points to stay fresh and tension to increasingly mount.
Binging Breaking Bad was not uncommon in the early years, thanks in part to the marathons that AMC would run before the start of each season. But the art of the binge became inextricably linked to the show once it became available on Netflix.
Viewership numbers had been steadily increasing with each season, but they skyrocketed during the how’s final 8-episode run in 2013. Upon winning the Best Drama Emmy that year, creator Vince Gilligan credited Netflix for essentially keeping the show on the air.
It’s little wonder, then, that as Netflix began producing its own original streaming content, they would take a page from Breaking Bad’s binge-worthy book. But even as heavily serialized drama seems poised to be the wave of the future, it feels as though that many Netflix TV producers have missed the point of precisely what made Breaking Bad so binge-able in the first place.
I’ve written in the past about how many supposedly binge-able streaming dramas aren’t all that binge-able, and I won’t reiterate the details here. But it’s clear that the storytelling balance of Breaking Bad – modestly episodic, yet with constantly increasing tension and few examples of midseason slump – has largely been replaced by an urge to make the deeply unappetizing “10-hour movie.”
But then, the formula of Breaking Bad may never be all that easy to replicate. That’s one of the things that has made the show so unique, and so continuously surprising and addictive. Ten years later, plenty of other shows have tried to replicate the show in scale, content, or form – but there is only one who knocks.
All episodes of Breaking Bad are currently available on DVD and streaming on Netflix. But hey, I’m assuming most of you have already seen it.