COLUMN: How 'Breaking Bad' Broke The Mold Of Modern Television
Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 29, 2013 19:09
Fresh off its first Emmy win and what may have been the most anticipated finale in the history of dramatic television, Breaking Bad is the toast of the town. For those who’ve followed the show, television may never be the same. Breaking Bad represents the peak of the golden age of television, an era of television that produced characters and stories the movies have yet to match.
In 2005, Lost won the Emmy for best drama. It was followed by Grey’s Anatomy in 2006. In a world where Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Homeland duke it out for best drama, it’s an injustice that Lost and Grey’s Anatomy own Emmys. Then in 2007 the tides began to turn. Between 2007 and 2009 AMC’s first hit Mad Men won three straight Emmys. It was followed by the admiral Boardwalk Empire and the dynamic Homeland, before Breaking Bad seized the throne just a week ago. Unless Game of Thrones wins the next seven Emmys (which could realistically happen), this eight-year arc from Grey’s Anatomy to Breaking Bad might end up the most definitive, medium-altering periods in television history. The Emmys, like any award show, do not represent an exact science when it comes to measuring popularity and quality. For instance, The Wire, still heralded as the greatest television program of all time, was never nominated for best drama. Still, our tastes have come a long way in eight years.
But how did we get here? How did Breaking Bad become the most culturally relevant show of the 2010s? Creator Vince Gilligan said after his first Emmy win, “Television has changed a lot in six years, and I have to credit it, I’m no expert on the sociological elements of it, but I think a big part of what has changed is streaming video on demand, specifically with operations like Netflix and iTunes and Amazon streaming. I think Netflix kept us over here.”
It was word of mouth that got us here, but not in the traditional sense. Apparently there’s this new thing called Twitter, and you can post whatever you want (as long as it’s 140 characters, though) straight to the web. Insane, right? So the more and more your buddies tweet about the show, the more you’ll want to watch some show about a meth-making chemistry teacher. When you scroll through the Netflix hub every night and continually see Breaking Bad as not only the top rated but most watched show, it’s another indicator that everyone you know is watching this show while you’re stuck in the dark ages watching Grey’s Anatomy.
So through word of web, Breaking Bad became cool, which is all a show can hope for. Once a show is “cool” it cements itself in popular culture and can run for ages. Entourage got through eight seasons on the “cool” factor alone. But Breaking Bad could never run for ages. Walt has cancer, after all. Maybe that’s why people were drawn to the show. There was something about Breaking Bad that captured the imagination of a legion of viewers. Something made them stay in bed all day repeatedly pressing play.
Last night and continuing into this morning I’m sure there’s been countless Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts that contain the following elements: disbelief that the show is actually over, a declaration of how much they love the show, and finally a sentimental statement like “Breaking Bad’s like will never be seen again.” Such is life on social media, but the last is just plain ignorance. Most saw Breaking Bad’s like long before the show was even conceived. It was called The Godfather. It’s one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time. It chronicles the rise, or fall, of a war hero into corruption and murder. Sound familiar? If not, swap war hero for high school teacher. I’m sure a lot people who saw The Godfather in theaters thought there would never be a movie like that again. Then we got The Godfather: Part II. Now we have Breaking Bad. Who knows what will be next.
Therein lies the poetry of the golden age of television—an era when the best stories are told on television. When Grey’s Anatomy won its Emmy, there was no indication that eight years later the television equivalent of The Godfather would be drawing the curtain on five illustrious seasons of television. For five years, Breaking Bad has been the best story around. It’s made watching an ungodly amount of television cool. Like Gilligan, I’m no expert on sociology, but I think we’re in a much better place right now than eight years ago. I don’t know where we’ll be in another eight, but somewhere, somehow, someone will be telling a great story.