Fans of “Breaking Bad” have just two more episodes to learn the fate of Walter White and his crystal meth empire, but at Sunday night’s Emmy Awards, the AMC drama looks poised to glide over all.
The nail-biting serial, about a milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher who turns to the drug trade to pay for his cancer treatment, is drawing record ratings and generating a social media cacophony every Sunday night as it hurtles toward its Sept. 29 series finale. Created by former “X-Files” writer Vince Gilligan, “Breaking Bad,” with 13 total nominations, is now the clear favorite to triumph in the intensely competitive drama category, where it’s been an also-ran three times.
“There is no show that has more buzz, more excitement than ‘Breaking Bad,’” said Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards-tracking website Gold Derby.
In a rarity for a long-running series, ratings for “Breaking Bad” have grown exponentially since it premiered in January 2008. Sunday’s episode, “Ozymandias,” drew a record audience of 6.4 million. That’s double its ratings just a year ago and more than five times its Season 1 average.
Interest in the brutal saga’s conclusion has exploded in a similar fashion. Although “Breaking Bad” has always been a critical darling, inspiring countless think pieces about Walter White’s Nietzschean journey, it never quite captured the zeitgeist in the way that “Mad Men” and “Homeland” have in recent years.
That is, until it headed into its final, eight-episode home stretch this summer. Since then, it has thoroughly dominated the cultural conversation, spawning marathon screenings at Lincoln Center in New York City and lengthy parodies on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
And rightfully so, according to Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan.
“This is a show that became more and more commercially successful the more it stuck to its guns creatively,” she said, likening the current frenzy over “Breaking Bad” to the run-up to the series finales of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Lost.”
But following the rise of the TV recap and social media, the mania is even more pitched.
“It’s hard to imagine what ‘The Sopranos’ finale would have been like in the era of the full-blown Internet,” said Brett Martin, author of “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’”
Yet there’s also something decidedly old-fashioned about “Breaking Bad’s” late-game surge. It’s the rare show that people feel the need to watch live —- otherwise, as Martin joked, “you’re unfit for human consumption.”
As Times critic Mary McNamara wrote this week, television shows like “Breaking Bad” are the new novels, and being culturally literate means having your homework done for Monday morning (if not sooner).
And even though Emmy voters are ostensibly judging “Breaking Bad” based on the eight-episode mini-season that aired last year, the deafening buzz, plus the fact that it’s the only drama nominee currently airing original episodes, might prove too hard to ignore.
Still, there are some significant obstacles standing between “Breaking Bad” and Emmys glory.
While it would make sense to recognize what is widely viewed as one of the most important television dramas of the past decade, a “Breaking Bad” victory would also defy Emmy tradition, claims O’Neil. The group tends to honor “aspirational, elitist” series, like “L.A. Law,” “The West Wing” and, of course, “Mad Men.”
“‘Breaking Bad’ is not that. It’s about a crystal meth cook, and a nasty one at that,” he said.
Indeed, the Emmys have been slow to recognize the larger creative accomplishments of “Breaking Bad.” Stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have both taken home multiple trophies for their work, but the series earned its first two writing nominations this year. (The opposite is true for four-time best drama “Mad Men” and its leading man Jon Hamm, who’s become the Susan Lucci of basic cable.)
Then there are the other nominees in the drama category, a group as formidable as any Mexican cartel. Last year’s victor, “Homeland,” is still a fierce contender, even if Season 2’s extravagant plot twists alienated some viewers.
“Mad Men’s” most recent season also earned some jeers but ended on a strong and unusually poignant note. In the wake of the infamous “Red Wedding,” HBO’s sprawling fantasy “Game of Thrones” has more momentum than ever, though even that might not be enough to overcome the industry bias against genre fare.
Last but by no means least is Netflix’s political thriller “House of Cards,” the first digitally distributed series to receive a nod for outstanding drama, which possesses the kind of big-screen cachet — in the form of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and David Fincher — that makes academy members weak in the knees. A vote for “House of Cards” is a vote for change (if not exactly hope).
“It has a very urgent industry message. It’s a serious threat to the reign of establishment TV,” O’Neil said of “House of Cards.” “I think you will hear a howl across Hollywood from broadcast and cable TV executives if it wins.”
But in its first showing at the Emmys, Netflix might just be its own worst enemy. The “Breaking Bad” ascendancy is due, in no small part, to the online subscription service, where the series became available for streaming in September 2011, enabling the curious to binge-watch on their own time.
“They have a symbiotic relationship,” said Christopher Vollmer, leader of the global media and entertainment practice at the consulting firm Booz & Company.
Even in the comedy realm, there are hints that Emmy might turn away from the shiny and affluent and embrace its dark side. ABC’s “Modern Family” has won the comedy prize for the last three years, but FX’s moody, idiosyncratic “Louie,” the first basic-cable comedy to earn a nomination in the category, could play the part of spoiler. The show’s writer, director, producer, editor and star Louis C.K. heads into the evening with an astonishing nine nominations, a sure indication of his popularity with Emmy voters.
“Louis C.K. is himself the academy,” O’Neil said of the balding, soft-of-belly comedian.
The eclectic mix of nominees, which also includes the “The Big Bang Theory,” “30 Rock,” “Veep” and “Girls,” is “a reflection of where comedy is right now,” Ryan said. “It’s cheaper and less of a risk to experiment.”
There’s a certain irony in the fact that the Emmy Awards tend to be far less exciting than the medium they celebrate, particularly in this golden age of television (case in point: even the most obsessive awards-trackers will be tempted to switch over to AMC when “Breaking Bad” comes on at 9 p.m. ET). TV’s biggest night can feel remarkably like “Groundhog Day,” with the same names popping up year after year with slight variations here and there.
On Sunday night, however, there could be more twists and turns than an episode of … well, pick your favorite.
‘The 65th Primetime Emmy Awards’
When: 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday;
Rating: Not rated