AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” one of the greatest television shows ever created, ended last night, but what we take away from the series can’t end with simply moving on to a new show.
Thinking about a world without the tales of school-teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White and wannabe-gangsta-turned-tragic-hero Jesse Pinkman seems strange and nonsensical. The show has been airing since I really started paying attention to the programs on the box in front of me.
These past few weeks have been filled not only with the series’ most breathtaking episodes, but with random friends disappearing into their bedrooms for days at a time, desperately trying to catch up so they can watch the series finale live, sans spoilers.
The people I’ve talked to who aren’t fans of the show view this behavior with confusion. With the advent of online options like Netflix, which will let anyone watch the entire series at their own pace, this mad dash is bizarre and inexplicable. It’s just a TV show.
It’s just a TV show that, over its five seasons, has won 10 Primetime Emmy Awards, including a 2013 win for Outstanding Drama Series.
It’s just a TV show that gave us the continued mastery of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, who have delivered two of the most consistently outstanding performances viewers have ever seen.
And it’s the TV show that has come to redefine what it means to be a successful drama series.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that it’s the best television drama ever made — “The Wire” takes that title in my book. But “Breaking Bad” is the most important.
As I’ve written about before, the film industry feels immense pressure to produce movies that are easily accessible, possess little dialogue from archetypical characters and contain enough special effects to play as a truly “American” film overseas. They fear that thoughtful, dialogue-based films — which, I might add, cost substantially less than their behemoth-budget cousins — will have limited runs that nobody goes to and will cost the studios millions.
I think these film executives are missing something.
It only takes a brief glance at the current shows on cable to understand that we are in something of a renaissance for long-form storytelling.
The heavyweights “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Homeland” are each outstanding examples of their craft. But the veritable buffet of television dramas extends far beyond these familiar favorites. Shows like “Justified” and “Game of Thrones” have devoted followings and insane production values. Online-only shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards” have created stirs among a generation of consumers that prefers its media to be accessible.
For all the talk that millennials need information stuffed into bite-sized GIFs, tweets and Vines, we sure do like stories that last forever. All of those assumptions made about our generation’s collective short attention span can be thrown in the garbage thanks to these shows. If we’re lucky, the film industry will follow TV’s example and move in the direction of unique, compelling storylines.
The lines between TV dramas and dramatic films are growing blurrier, to the point of nonexistence. In fact, the only real difference between a “Boardwalk Empire,” whose pilot episode cost a reported $18 million, and a film like “The Social Network” is that the TV show lasts much, much longer.
And while new offerings like “Masters of Sex” illustrate a television industry that wants nothing more than to find the next hit drama, the dearth of compelling films released this year paint that industry in a very different light.
“Breaking Bad” offers up some hope. Can you remember the last time people collectively lost their minds like this about a story? Every talk show, every pop culture website, every enthusiastic viewer of television has spent the last couple of months eagerly anticipating the conclusion to Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece.
Is it so far-fetched to hope that some innovative film executives (I know that’s an oxymoron) will take a chance and actually work on creating a series of films with the thoughtfulness and impact of a contemporary TV drama?
Think about it. They could bring in Vince Gilligan and David Simon (“The Wire”) to write four sequential screenplays, cast a bunch of hitherto-underappreciated character actors as the leads, get Matt Weiner and Aaron Sorkin to produce them and hire Kathryn Bigelow as the director. Those films would win a million Oscars. And you would go see them, right? I sure would.
I can imagine the trailer. An ex-homicide detective who quit her job 15 years ago to raise her adopted children is approached by the eccentric owner of a convenience store chain. He has a lead on the only target who ever escaped her. When her wife disappears, leaving only the calling card of her former target, she accepts the store owner’s offer and goes under the cover of vigilante justice.
And if it all worked out, every other film executive would do their best to copy the formula of innovation. “Breaking Bad” could make innovation hip.
I’m going to miss Walter and Jesse, but if their end could lead to a new beginning in American cinema, the legacy of “Breaking Bad” will be even greater than everyone already thought.