Going into Sunday’s Emmy telecast, all eyes are on “Breaking Bad.” It’s picked up a slew of acting awards during its five-season run and is this year’s odds-on favorite for drama series; as the show moves toward its Sept. 29 finale, its ratings have almost tripled since last year.
“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 “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and then “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” is one of Those Shows, prestige dramas, mostly from basic and premium cable, that now drive cocktail party conversations and demand grad-school-level dissection. Recapping is rapidly eclipsing the book club as our primary form of communal literary analysis.
Liberated from the censors, ratings pressure and lengthy broadcast TV seasons, these are also the shows that ate the Emmys, filling nearly every drama category in this year’s nominations. Even culture snobs admit to liking “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Homeland” or at least one member of TV’s ever-growing Literary Salon (some of which, like “Justified,” are actually drawn from literature).
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 “Damages” is like saying you never quite got around to reading “Catcher in the Rye” or “Pride and Prejudice.” Just not done, darling.
Indeed, the new Netflix full-season dump is a complete capitulation to the watching-is-the-new-reading model. Here ... here it is, Netflix says, the whole darn thing. Take it to the beach/bedroom/backyard and hunker down.
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 (Bryan Cranston) as he was receiving a death sentence. His cancer went into remission as another sort of corruption set in, but still the clock was ticking and creator Vince Gilligan was very clear about his intentions.
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, AMC is not a philanthropic institution.)
“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 (James Gandolfini), “The Sopranos” had the huge cast and smorgasbord of B and C plots that traditionally ensure a show’s longevity. It was so open-ended that virtually every season saw creator David Chase debating whether this would be the last, before finally delivering a finale that ranks among the most ambiguous conclusions of any story ever told.
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 “Episodes” has just nine, all of which are shot from one script, as if the season were a nine-hour movie. The miniseries may still lie dormant, but a “limited run” resurrection of “24" is being discussed while the recent “television event” adaptation of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” was launched with the understanding that it could have ended, story-wise, with one season had it not been so popular.
Showtime’s “The Big C,” though radically different from “Breaking Bad” in tone and intention, also used cancer to create a naturally limited timeline. The show’s final season was just four episodes, allowing star Laura Linney to be nominated for an Emmy in this year’s miniseries/movie category. Based on a series of novels, “Dexter,” which ends a week before “Breaking Bad,” had the traditional structure of a procedural, but it also had a built-in expiration date — even a devoted audience can stay true to a serial killer for only so long.
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. “Lost” might have been conceived as a four- or five-season series, but emotional satisfaction was the most viewers could hope for at the end of its sixth and final season; certainly none of the show’s “mysteries” were actually explained. Many finales are so bad (“Seinfeld”) or divorced from the shows they close, they become separate entities, codas judged by their own set of rules.
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?