Throughout this month, I’ve had the pleasure of looking back at a lot of great television. Moody dramas and hilarious comedies (and vice versa). The 2010s offered more TV than ever, and a greater variety than ever, filling every niche demographic you can imagine. No matter your tastes or preferences, there was most certainly something that could resonate with you these last ten years.
The downside with the explosion of Peak TV, though, has been the slow and steady fragmenting of pop-culture at large. With so many new shows premiering each year, the likelihood of two people watching the same series is lower than ever. Communal series and “event” television are no longer common – ironic, considering how many different means of TV-watching we have these days.
There have ben exceptions to this rule. Though the 2010s didn’t weather any hits at the level of Friends or Lost, it produced a handful of watercooler shows. Chief among these was Game of Thrones, the massive HBO series that spanned eight dragon-filled seasons. A more recent example is Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ love letter to ’80s sci-fi, which causes a social-media splash every time Netflix drops a new season.
I don’t count myself among the Game of Thrones or Stranger Things fanbase – despite sampling the early episodes of both, neither held my interest very long. So to solidify my commentary about “event television,” I must turn to the early part of the decade, and to a little series called Breaking Bad.
Created by Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad premiered on AMC in January 2008. The series centered on Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Wanting to provide for his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) and son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) after his death, he decides to enter the highly profitable but highly illegal world of meth cooking. With the help of former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), he embarks on a path filled with drugs, dealers, and quite a lot of death.
The first two seasons of Breaking Bad were filled with memorable moments – the broken plate, the “talking pillow,” the introduction of Tuco Salamanca and his wheelchair-bound Tio, the Jesse/Jane arc, and the one-eyed floating teddy bear. Unfortunately, those two seasons aired before the start of the decade, and are thus ineligible for consideration in this list. Luckily, the remaining three seasons provide plenty of excellent material to let it qualify.
Breaking Bad kicked off the decade with a spectacular third season, centering on the fallout from Season Two’s jaw-dropping cliffhanger. The season put a large emphasis on new characters like Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut, and featured a meatier role for sleazy Saul Goodman. (All three characters, of course, have had their lapels pinned earlier.) The season featured two of the show’s finest episodes – “One Minute,” which featured a white-knuckle climax between Hank (Dean Norris) and the Cousins, and “Fly,” Rian Johnson’s meticulously directed episode confined almost entirely to Walt’s Superlab.
Though it lacked the cohesive story of Season Two (Gilligan and co. adopted a “wing it” strategy for the season, a formula they would maintain for the rest of the series), Season Three cemented Breaking Bad as one of the most skillfully-crafted shows on the air. No other series could generate this level of tension for this long a period, with each episode leaving viewers breathless for the next.
Season Four continued the run of excellence, at times rivaling the third for supremacy. Though it focused more heavily on serialization (as opposed to unique episodes), there was nary a false hour in the run. An increased role for Gus, a chilling menace whose cruel disposition never felt forced or hammy, gave the show higher stakes than ever, and from the opening scenes of “Box Cutter” (perhaps the show’s strongest premiere) to the final minutes of “Face Off” (a stealth-pun of a title that set up the series’ most memorable visual), he proved himself as Walter’s most menacing foe.
Following two seasons of wild, seat-of-the-pants storytelling, Breaking Bad – and the network it aired on – chose to take a breather. As part of a trend which became all too common this decade, the final season was split into two halves, each eight episodes long. From a financial standpoint, this made sense: Breaking Bad had been growing in popularity each season, thanks in part to new viewers discovering and binge-watching earlier seasons on Netflix. AMC figured – correctly – that keeping the show around longer would allow it to grow in popularity even further.
But from a storytelling standpoint, Breaking Bad hiccupped. Though it introduced some compelling new villains and featured a memorable train heist episode, the first half of Season Five was perhaps the show’s weakest stretch; it felt like the show was biding its time while setting up a more intriguing climax.
But when that climax came, it delivered. The final eight episodes were a blazing and brutal thrill ride to the show’s conclusion, upping the ante with each new episode and hitting a series peak with “Ozymandias” (one of the decade’s best TV episodes, period). The finale, though criticized by some for wrapping things a little too neatly (prior to that, the show was never known for the tidiness of its endings), served as a riveting sendoff to a riveting show.
And it served as one of the precious few communal TV events of the decade. An astonishing 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the series finale of Breaking Bad. (By comparison, the midseason finale one year earlier had garnered fewer than 3 million.) AMC would repeatedly outdo that number with The Walking Dead, but the home stretch of BB was a rare case of non-zombie unification.
In the years since, Breaking Bad has remained a formidable TV force. New viewers continually discover the show for the first time. Better Call Saul has been enjoying wide acclaim since 2015. And not long ago, Netflix released a new movie centering on Jesse Pinkman. A very good movie, as it turned out.
So Breaking Bad isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to inspire other shows (though perhaps not always in the right ways) and will keep its reputation as one of TV’s all-time greatest works. So much so, in fact, that there will probably be some quibbling about my placing the series outside my Top 3. But fear not – the best is yet to come.
Tune in tomorrow for the 3rd-best show of the decade, which proved that perky blonde women will save the world.
The List So Far
20. Person of Interest
17. The Americans
14. The Leftovers
13. Better Things
12. Mad Men
9. Better Call Saul
7. The Good Wife
6. Master of None