Surely it was a silent majority of us that signed off of spoiler-filled social media Sunday night and let the anguish over the end of Breaking Bad roll in. The breast-beating tweets and mind-blown Facebook statuses meant nothing to us. The last time we saw Bryan Cranston was on Malcom in the Middle, probably in his underwear. And now that the show is over, it is our time. To us, the binge viewers, the end of what is widely hailed as our generation’s finest work of broadcast fiction is anything but a loss — it’s a back cover to a book that’s now ready to take home. Whether by Christmas box set, Netflix, or illegal download, the saga of Breaking Bad last night became a fully-there piece of work, ready to be consumed en masse.
It makes a lot of sense to watch quality shows in this way. First off, fans that don't have cable TV are faced with the prospect of either ingratiating themselves with enough friends that do (forming a shameful rotation of self-invites that us TV freeloaders know too well), or waiting for it to come out online/on DVD. More importantly, though, there's a slightly more pompous reason to delay your gratification, only to gorge on it during your next hurricane-induced staycation or stretch of unemployment. It has to do with posterity, and with the legacy that shows like Breaking Bad will likely retain.
I was always suspicious of the consensus that formed around The Wire as superlatively and as easily as it did. As Stuff White People Like put it, “Whenever you say The Wire white people are required to respond by saying ‘it’s the best show on television.’” In retrospect, it seems even sillier. It’s not that Breaking Bad or Homeland or any number of the current generation of high-quality shows are necessarily better than David Simon's Tolstoy-of-the-ghetto masterpiece, but rather, that none of them are really TV shows.
In my honest opinion, The Simpsons is the best television show ever. In terms of what the show meant to me growing up, the consistent intelligence of its episodes and the cultural impact it had — many times that of Breaking Bad — it still wins. (Latter-day Simpsons episodes do not exist for the purposes of this statement.)
But The Simpsons is a great show for something like syndication viewing. The episodes can be watched in any order, they resolve in 22 minutes, and there are few multi-episode plot complexities. Even outside the sitcom genre, the same traits characterize “classic” TV shows, from Bonanza to Miami Vice to Law and Order. To me, this interchangeability is the essence of a “television show.”
Of course Breaking Bad was broadcast on TV, but so are the films shown on its home channel, incidentally named American Movie Classics. Are those films “television” as well? We’re contending with super-long works of cinema, essentially, that progress along story arcs so highly structured that they are still allowed to climax at the height of their popularity, defying every rule of conventional TV wisdom. We may as well admit that what we’re talking about aren’t television shows. These dramas represent a new art form altogether, maybe something like “cable cinema.”
Rather than TV shows, a closer analog to Breaking Bad, The Wire, and the rest of cable cinema is the serialized fiction that was popular in the Victorian era. Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Herman Melville, and many other authors were immortalized in this genre. A magazine such as Harper’s would publish one chapter at a time over the course of years, sometimes, and the most successful stories would have a rabid fanbase similar to today’s pop dramas. Upon complete publication, of course, the installments would be bundled into novels.
In fact, one of the great literary successes of that era emphasizes the difference between fiction that is truly episodic and that which is novellike: consider Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective was wildly popular in 1890s serials, but today, we remember the character himself more than any particular work in which he appeared. His adventures were mostly TV-style cases that resolved neatly and were unencumbered by one another. Compare that with The Three Musketeers or Great Expectations, two works that appeared originally as serials and now endure as novels. Such is what we seem to have with the new genre that’s emerged in the past few years on cable.
It wasn’t many years ago that HBO boldly entered the world of the one-hour drama with the series Oz. The low-budget granddaddy of gritty premium programming ended in 2003, after 56 acclaimed episodes. By that time, it had paved the way for two of the most iconic early works of the cable cinema genre, The Sopranos and The Wire. And by the time those shows wrapped, a noticeable change in television programming was well underway.
Seemingly overnight, once-intrusive TV executives were letting iconoclastic showrunners like Lena Dunham and Vince Gilligan turn out what I believe will eventually be regarded as cable cinema’s golden age: Homeland, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, and many more. One of the genre’s most notable works, no doubt, will be the show that caused so much online apoplexy last night.
Since we can reasonably expect some of the work from this golden age to last, why not experience it in the format in which it will be consumed in the future? Film students 20 years from now will not watch and tweet about Girls weekly, they’ll see it the same way as today's unrepentant binge viewer. Just as the originally serialized David Copperfield endures because of its success in novel form, the shows that will continue to be culturally relevant are the ones that will best hold up as condensed works.
From what I’ve heard, Breaking Bad is guaranteed a spot in these ranks. To those with cable appointments, I say, keep your 9:00 p.m. Sunday slot. I’m coming fashionably late to this meth party.