Going into Sunday's Emmy telecast, all eyes are on
"Breaking Bad" exemplifies a new sort of television series, one conceived with its ending in sight. Wonderfully written, powerfully acted, gorgeously shot, its seasons serve as chapters that take on the Big Four of literary conflict: Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, Man versus Society, Man versus Himself. The ending comes not in reaction to dwindling ratings or actor fatigue but because, as with any great work of fiction, it suits the story.
Television isn't just the new film, it's the new novel.
Following in the footsteps of
Liberated from the censors, ratings pressure and lengthy broadcast TV seasons, these are also the shows that ate the
DVR queues have become the new nightstands, with episodes stacking up like back issues of the New Yorker until, stricken with some minor ailment or surgery, we can binge-view and catch up. Which one really needs to do because, increasingly, admitting that you have never seen "Mad Men," "The Wire" or
Indeed, the new
While actual novelists are forced to think in terms of sequels and franchise, American television writers are experimenting with the finite.
"Breaking Bad," the tale of Walter White's descent into power, is a near perfect example of this new form. We met the mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher (
While the many other members of TV's "antihero society" struggled toward illumination, Walter breathed in the dark. Gilligan repeatedly said he wanted to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface, and, more important, it was the journey not the result that interested him.
It was not an immediate hit, even by cable standards. For years, the show seemed to have more essays written about it than actual viewers — Gilligan has long credited Netflix for the mid-life ratings growth that led to this year's explosion. Which makes the upcoming finale close to revolutionary — "Breaking Bad" is ending because Gilligan's story is ending. (A prequel spinoff, "Better Call Saul," is in the works because, well,
"The Sopranos" may have begun the literary trend, tonally and thematically, but it followed a structure made famous, and then ubiquitous, by "Hill Street Blues." Although it clearly focused on Tony (
Now television is tinkering as much with form as function. Cable brought us series with far fewer shows per season than broadcast's traditional 22; Showtime's
But AMC's first two original series are the flag-bearers of the new form. Although much more of an ensemble piece than "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" is driven by protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as he grapples with seismic shifts both cultural and personal caused mostly by the simple passage of time. While most television shows start from a place of many possible paths and often shift cast, intent and tone to increase ratings, creator Matthew Weiner's vision of Don's journey is very controlled, with a novelist's approach to character development. Don Draper is a fixed point around which the show's universe spins and "Mad Men," Weiner has announced, will end with its seventh season divided into two short runs in 2014 and 2015.
As with "Breaking Bad," it's an ending that really matters.
Finales always fascinate, but usually because of the acrobatics required in bringing a show to some sort of cogent close; audiences flock to see how the writers are going to tie up the zillion loose ends that result from years of seasonal reinvention.
The finale of "Breaking Bad," on the other hand, will, or should, make some sort of statement about modern morality. No other show has pushed the boundaries of graphic violence and moral depravity, with such lack of censure. No other show has both catalyzed and benefited from the recently universal conclusion that television is this century's ascendant art form.
Unless Gilligan conjures a trick similar to Chase's black screen, the fate of Walter White will inevitably send a message not just about the moral imperative of all these antiheroes, but also the courage of this new narrative form.
Will justice, cynicism or brand survival prevail?