This Sunday marks the beginning of the end for Breaking Bad, with the second half of season five resuming. This is the part of most articles where the author is supposed to explain something about the show, and I could do that by praising it… but I can say much that you haven’t read dozens of times already. So I’m going to say something that sums up the show in the best possible way:
Breaking Bad ruined television for me.
Ever since I started watching Breaking Bad, I have said the following about (almost) every show I have seen since: “It’s good, but not as good as Breaking Bad.” It has made me realize that shows I used to love aren’t as good, at least by comparison.
As much as I hate to admit it, it looks like Family Guy was right about something.
In honor of the end of the fifth season, here are five things other shows can learn from Breaking Bad.
1) Know when to quit
This is so important that I’m putting the moral before the story here – do not let a show overstay its welcome.
I’m not just talking about jumping the shark. I’m talking about a show getting to the point where even diehard fans are saying “It should have ended X seasons ago.” If that happens, it doesn’t just damage the quality of the show – it damages the legacy of the show.
Don’t be Heroes. Something started great and went downhill, but they kept trying and failing. It is now a vilified series.
Don’t be Rosanne. A popular show for most of its run, the last season changed the entire tone of the show. The last episode played the “it was all a dream” card – literally changing everything about the show.
Don’t be Dexter. Dexter used to be my favorite show, and I still rank seasons one and four as some of the best TV I’ve seen. Then season four ended, the killings decreased, the pointless sex increased, and the show’s been going downhill since. (More on this later.)
I’m going to let the Simpsons sum up what not to do, in this oddly prescient clip from the early seasons.
Giving your main character a terminal disease in the first episode gives your series a limited shelf life. Vince Gilligan understood this, which is in part why the show is ending after five seasons.
Let your show die a hero. Don’t let it live long enough to become a villain.
2) Change how we feel about the characters.
This is not the same thing as “character development.” Bear with me.
Any halfway decent show will feature character development. Gruff characters will soften up, cowards will become brave, the clueless will get a clue. That said, in most shows, how you as a viewer feel about the character does not change. The protagonist is still the protagonist and the antagonist is still the antagonist. It takes a special kind of writing to change how the viewer sympathizes with a character.
Walt is an obvious example of this. He goes from making a pro-con list about whether he should kill one man to ordering a prison murder scheme. The viewer stops seeing him as a good guy in over his head and starts seeing him as the villain. No mincing of words here: he is a monster.
Walt aside, Skyler may be the best example of this. Skyler is the character fans seem to hate the most – if you’ve ever had a conversation with a Breaking Bad fan who hasn’t seen season five, it’s even money odds that they will mention how much they hate Skyler and want her to die. I took extra care to include “hasn’t seen season five,” because once season five starts, she goes from annoying wife to terrified, psychologically-abused spouse.
She spends the entire season with a look of terror behind her eyes. The viewer no longer sees her as the nag wife – she’s now married to a complete monster. She may now be the most sympathetic character on the show.
The Wire also demonstrates this well. Example: McNulty’s serial killer storyline was the most morally ambiguous thing he’d done all series, and it altered viewers’ perceptions of him.
3) Make every episode count
Attention, television executives charged with making primetime television – you are NOT making a soap opera. You don’t have forever to tell a story, so keep the filler to a minimum. Breaking Bad succeeds in this, and in an easy-to-prove way that every viewer has experienced: it’s impossible to talk with people who aren’t as far along in the series as you. Even if they are just one or two episodes behind. Breaking Bad – a show that moves so quickly that each episode is a complete spoiler for the previous one.
4) Hire a good cinematographer
Once upon a time, camerawork in TV shows merely had to be functional. Then one day David Lynch made Twin Peaks. Cinematography mattered. Then HDTV became a thing. The end.
It can be hard to describe what makes cinematography, so I’m just going to show you a promo for this season:
Time lapse. Lighting. Scenery. Everything. A good portion of what you need to know about the show can be found in that short clip, and there’s barely any action. Part of the joy of Breaking Bad is just looking at it.
The series is filmed on 35 mm film. If something works, there’s no reason for it to go out of style. Who needs 48 FPS?
5) Worry less about the viewer and more about writing a good story.
“My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. … He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.”
~ David Simon, creator of The Wire
I’m convinced that the downfall of many shows come down to showrunners or television executives not wanting to scare away viewers. Writers stop taking risks, and this inevitably leads to a show’s descent into blandness.
If you need proof, look no further than Dexter. Let’s compare how often violence is used. (I should note that I’m not saying that violence in and of itself is good for a show, but in this case it demonstrates how much a network is willing to show in pursuit of a good audience). We will use the first season, when writers for the most part do what they want to try to make the show work, to subsequent seasons, when execs get a say:
Dexter first season:
Over 2/3 of the episodes featured Dexter killing people. He killed people with buzzsaws, cleavers, and knives. He would often kill them by slicing their neck or cleaving them, leaving lots of blood spatter. His victims would beg for their life, scream, try to escape. It was gruesome, but impossible to ignore.
Kills were almost exclusively by a knife to the heart, except in the one-or-two special circumstances each season. Blood spatter decreased. Victims became quiet, essentially props. Need proof? Do two things: examine this graph and watch this video. You’ll notice a decrease in variety and an increase in banality. This has been reflected in the show – it has been sanitized, and just a shadow of its former self. (I’d go on, but Deadshirt is no place for this negativity.)
Breaking Bad first season:
Viewers who saw a body get cut up, dissolved in acid, and subsequently had that acid burn a hole through a ceiling a spill guts all over the floor wondered if this was as gruesome as the show got. Then Tuco beat a guy to death. How could it get worse than this?
Boxcutter. Choking on vomit. Fast moving vehicles. The Cousins. Danny Trejo’s severed head explodes. A kid shoots someone to death. Jesse kills Gale. Suicide bomb. A kid gets shot. Organized prison murders. No mercy for anyone. The show got more gruesome as it went on – demonstrating that this show is not afraid to disturb its audience. It will not “tone it down a little.”
Gilligan has gone on record saying it would be a “kind of hell” for him to “cop out and soften Walter White so we could potentially get more viewers.”
The moral of the story: Don’t be afraid of alienating viewers. No need to make things inoffensive for the “average viewer.” If you write a good story, viewers will follow you into the darkest places.
Eventually, a show will be released that will be objectively superior to Breaking Bad. May we wait for it with the patience of Gus Fring.