How 'Breaking Bad' Broke Bad: The Rise and Fall of TV Serialisation

“…But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation.”

Breaking Bad, “Pilot”

Serialization in television is now commonplace. For a previous episode from the week before, or a year prior, to have after-effects on the episode airing is expected. Some act, choice, mark left on the world will inevitably create a ripple effect on any episode that follows.  Shows such as Mad Men, The Sopranos, Deadwood, were some of the shows that contributed and furthered televisions “Golden Age” of serialization. . In HBO’s The Wire , heavy serialisation was done to demonstrate the living, breathing world of the its setting; Baltimore. FX’s The Shield, uses this technique to show how crimes of the past leave permanent marks on the community, the characters, and the series itself. HBO’s The Sopranos, despite being widely attributed as a serialized series, was incredibly episodic if remembered right. Its greatest, most memorable and influential episodes stood alone, with no real connection to prior episodes, as well as the fact that characters on that show, while they did grow in some cases, very much did not. In fact, that was one of the points of that show, characters refusing to change their worse attributes. Same could be said of AMC’s Mad Men, where creator Matthew Reiner was previously a writer for that HBO series. Yet none would have the same effect that Breaking Bad would.

The real change, the ‘transformation’, Breaking Bad granted to serialised television was a continued evolution, or moral descent of its protagonist, Walter White (and co.). Before, serialisation was used somewhat sparingly to show lasting stains from the characters and institutions of those shows. With Breaking Bad, however, viewers were treated to a slow, laborious, and continuous character development never truly done in the television medium. This will be creator Vince Gilligan’s legacy; the creation of a series that took a hold of pop culture that continues to hold strong, even today. Gilligan did this in a way that no series has truly managed to successfully imitate (but imitate they did).

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In Breaking Bad, character growth was done with unsparing detail of what most crime stories would deem ‘trivial’, ‘irrelevant’, and often ‘boring’. When a character enacts whatever scheme they have concocted, the series would bore in each individual step of their plan. Viewers were given the outline, the obtaining of materials, the practice, and finally, the execution, with every minute detail filled in and explained. This was done in masterful effect, our eyes glued to our screens, anxiously wondering what the final payoff would look like when executed. Breaking Bad managed to make the set-up, which could take several episodes at a time, riveting and engaging. And most of all, such creative decisions were done to demonstrate the ingenuity of these characters, as well as their dedication, and eventually, their ruthlessness.

Vince Gilligan, like other great TV writers (Glen Morgan and James Wong, Howard Gordon, Thomas Schnauz, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban) had his start in the writers’ room on landmark series The X-Files. Standalone Gilligan episodes like “Drive” (which starred future collaborator Bryan Cranston) and “Hungry” demonstrated his fascination with characters that would normally be despicable and monstrous; here he gave them a sympathetic air and multifaceted personality. Those characters undertook a journey that was physically and mentally taxing, ending in a place that was ultimately inevitable: their deaths. The X-Files finished in 2004 leaving Gilligan now jobless and almost 40. In a conversation with fellow X-Files writer Thomas Schnauz, Schnauz made an off-hand joke with Gilligan of how they should just go start a meth lab in the back of a Winnebago, travelling the country. From that came the seed of an idea that would grow into his signature series. So yes, Breaking Bad is Gilligan’s masterwork, a piece of entertainment that will be continued to be discovered and enjoyed, quoted and referenced for decades. But it has had an admittedly negative effect on television itself.

So, what negative effect did Gilligan’s series have on serialized television? Breaking Bad was, at the outset, not a highly rated show. It had decent numbers, but nothing especially extraordinary.  Yet it was Netflix that awarded the series with a fanbase that grew and grew until it became a worldwide sensation. Whenever a property, either film, literary, television, etc. finds huge, unprecedented and unexpected success, others become desperate to have a success of their own. Through acquirement and development of properties that are heavily inspired by or modelled after said success, hopes that it will garner the same level of fervour and adoration become so widespread that the very foundation of the medium can become, in a way, corrupted and damaged. Such is what happened with serialised television and Breaking Bad.

Starting in 2013, Netflix, the very streaming service that helped Breaking Bad break big, branched out into its own original series. Creators who went to work with Netflix were awarded a level of creative freedom (in both budget and episode runtime) that other networks never would (or could) provide. This, along with Netflix’s then-revolutionary delivery model of dropping an entire season at once rather than releasing one episode per week, soon proved to be incredibly detrimental to serialisation in television. Colloquially known as “Netflix Bloat” is the phenomenon where, after learning all the lessons from Gilligan’s series, creators would drag the plot at a glacial pace; normally that’s the death of a series there and then on normal television.

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Now that creators no longer had such editorial concerns with being on Netflix, these normally crippling storytelling decisions became commonplace (i.e.Godless, Ozark, House of Cards, several of Netflix’s Marvel series). With Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan zoomed in on the step-by-step process of every character’s machinations, with dynamite results. But now afforded episodes that could be as long as they wanted, with seasons released at once rather than piece by piece, writers took that storytelling technique and made their narratives unmemorable slogs.

Breaking Bad came with what many assumed to be an evolution in serialized television. But in time, this supposed growth became a widespread decay that infected serialisation at its core. The quote at the top from Breaking Bad’s central figure, Walter White, trying to break down the appeal he found in chemistry, yet it’s relevant to television’s development post-Breaking Bad.  It’s a cycle. Now, some of our best shows airing are, incredibly enough, episodic. Most of TV’s best are half-hour shows that experiment and vary wildly from week to week, sometimes spanning genres within the very same series. You can see this with FX’s Atlanta, where it notably had an episode that functioned as its own little horror film (“Teddy Perkins”). Or HBO’s Barry, which this year had an entire episode focus on a failed hit, and the consequences that followed (“ronny/lily”). And Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, which has episodes acting as a scathing satire of celebrity culture (ergo American culture) and Hollywood to emotionally brutal ones that act as a meditation on trauma, addiction, self-loathing and depression. What came out of that decay, that death, of serialized television was something miraculous, magnificent.

Growth, then decay, then transformation.