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The Year TV Got Small

Was the Breaking Bad finale the last gasp of the monoculture?

On Sunday, September 29, 2013, more than 10 million people tuned in to the series finale of Breaking Bad. This number was staggering in and of itself — there were more 18-to-49-year-olds watching Walter White pop the trunk than there were watching any other program on television that night, football included. But what’ll really fulminate your mercury is when you look at where Breaking Bad‘s audience was coming from. In the fall of 2010, “Face Off,” the show’s explosive fourth-season finale and (to some) its high-water mark, drew just 1.9 million viewers. And, as Entertainment Weekly‘s James Hibberd pointed out, this was considered a great number for a show that had been struggling to garner ratings even a fraction as strong as its critical response. In the course of two years and just 16 episodes, Breaking Bad‘s audience had grown by an astonishing 442 percent. That’s not science, bitch. That’s a miracle.

What happened this summer with Breaking Bad was as exhilarating as it was shocking. We live in an on-demand culture. Second chances and patience are as rare as rabbit-ear antennae. The idea of a TV show slowly gaining popularity over time — heck, the idea of anything slowly gaining popularity over time — seems wildly old-fashioned. But Breaking Bad‘s rise was a rare moment of modern TV transitioning from YOLO to FOMO. Between seasons, when Breaking Bad was on hiatus from old-media AMC it was ferociously boiling on Netflix and iTunes, creating new addicts by the Winnebago-ful. By the time Breaking Bad returned for its final episodes in August, a brand-new audience was there waiting for it, bleary-eyed, jittery, and ready to score. 

What followed was eight weeks of excellent TV, sure, but also an even better expression of what I’ve come to love about TV culture. Breaking Bad aired on Sundays, but the show itself was only the beginning of a weeklong orgy of conversation, argument, recaps, and precaps. We were all swigging from the same water cooler, trading the same outlandish theories. Tweets were swapped like glassine baggies of blue. From the arid deserts of Albuquerque, a thousand GIFS bloomed. Here, finally, was the television experience the Internet had promised us: at once intimate and expansive, private and shared. Breaking Bad upgraded a 20th-century size audience to a 21st-century level of engagement. For TV fans, it wasn’t a glimpse of the future: It was the future. Too bad the credits had to roll so soon.

Orange is the new black

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in early November, I sat in my apartment and watched a stream of the second episode of Black Mirror on my laptop. Titled “Fifteen Million Merits,” the hour had originally been broadcast in the U.K. on December 11, 2011, when it was viewed by 1.52 million forward-thinking Britons. Nearly two years later, the episode would air domestically on the Audience Channel,1 a quasi-network available only to the 20 million or so Americans who have a small DirecTV dish attached to their roof. (DirecTV doesn’t release viewership data, but it’s a pretty safe bet that only a small percentage of its subscribers were tuned in at 9 p.m. ET on November 19 when “Fifteen Million Merits” debuted.) On that rainy Tuesday, at least, it was just me, sitting in a dark room, staring at an unsettling hour about a drone named Bing who lives in a tiny box with screens instead of walls. Except for a few precious hours of silence when Bing’s permitted to sleep, those walls broadcast jabbering, noisy entertainment at him nonstop, an exploding collage of sex, violence, and aspirational blather. Fast-forwarding commercials is a privilege, not a right. An alarm sounds when he closes his eyes.

I could relate. As expansive and social as Breaking Bad was, it was the Black Mirror experience that felt more universal in 2013. The vibrant present we all shared while watching Jesse drive away and Walt crumple to the floor — a feeling that had us gasping for breath and reaching for our smartphones — very quickly receded into the past. Nothing else from 2013 could measure up.2 But the important point is that very little tried. The majority of the year was dominated by smaller shows, more singular experiences. The further we get from Walt’s final showdown, the more its dominance stands apart: Consider the 6-foot-tall fourth-grader from the perspective of his classmates, not the varsity basketball coach.

Instead, I’m drawn again and again to the subtle slither of Black Mirror, a series with an unknown audience that, two years and one continent removed from its premiere, has been unstuck in time. Strangely, that lack of context has made it feel more relevant, not less. I’m not saying the next few years are going to look like the technological dystopia of Black Mirror (though they might), I’m saying they will look a lot like me watching Black Mirror: fully engaged, possibly overwhelmed, and more or less alone.

TV was never bigger than it was in 2013. It’s the dominant topic in our cultural conversation. It’s where the talent is. It’s where the money goes. Every month brings a blast of fresh scripted series and a panoply of new (or newly rebooted) channels dedicated to airing them. At the same time, the experience of watching TV feels as if it’s shrinking.3 For a golden decade, TV had seemingly managed to outrun the Internet-fueled entropy that had ravaged other media, from magazines to music. Twitter and Facebook didn’t decouple shows from their time slots, they policed them: Who could afford to miss an episode when to do so meant avoiding the web altogether? But as the truly great shows give way to a generation of very good ones, the audience has splintered. You could argue that that’s a good thing, that a tighter focus and a commitment to more personalized storytelling helps avoid the mushiness of groupthink. You could also argue against it: There’s a case to be made that the unfettered creativity and ambition that fueled TV’s millennial rise has given way to a niche-targeting cynicism, in which the great dark dramas of the ’00s are ripped off and recycled, first as tragedy, then as farce. Regardless, while there are more shows than ever to love, there are fewer and fewer to love together.4

Netflix, the onetime envelope company that held its coming-out party in 2013, does not think this is a bad thing. With a consistent, if bewildering, strategy of backing up the content truck in the middle of the night and dumping original series onto its server a season at a time, Netflix has done much to privatize the viewing experience. I’ve argued before that encouraging this sort of bingeing does no favors to the art or the audience. It takes a pleasantly coursed dinner party and transforms it into a hot dog eating contest. And yet perhaps it’s just a question of showrunners adapting to the appetites of a new era. I found House of Cards‘ frictionless pessimism only mildly diverting; watching each dimly lit hour zip by reminded me of hotel floors as seen from the inside of a glass elevator. But Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black had the opposite effect. Unlike the dour and self-serious Cards, Orange lightened its heavy subject matter with an infectious impudence and one of the bubbliest casts ever assembled. The result was a show that demanded to be imbibed in great, swigging gulps, each episode able to stand on its own and on the shoulders of its predecessor. Orange restored my faith in TV’s ability to tell diverse stories in exciting new ways, and I wanted to shout as much from the rooftops, or at least the guard tower. Too bad I waited until late in the fall to finish the season. By then, there was no one left to tell.

Elizabeth Moss But I suppose I’m in no position to complain. After all, it was the so-called small shows that gave me the most pleasure in 2013. My favorite program of the year was Top of the Lake, a haunting and transporting miniseries that aired on the suddenly ascendant Sundance Channel.5 Lake took a laundry list of the year’s most overused tropes, including crimes involving children (Broadchurch, The Following), troubled female investigators (The Killing, The Fall), old people on drugs (Mad Men), and Elisabeth Moss (also Mad Men), then subverted them all with a disquieting mix of humor and horror. It wasn’t for everyone, but it certainly was more than enough for me.

That hyper-specificity carried me through the year. I fell hard for FX’s The Americans and Showtime’s Masters of Sex, but the majority of my dalliances were more circumspect. Coming on the heels of Top of the Lake, Sundance Channel’s mournful Rectify, and the creepy French import The Returned each wormed their way under my skin quite unexpectedly. Their highs never spiked like Breaking Bad, but neither did they crash like Heisenberg’s many pale imitators. There was a similarly modest joy to be found in other unexplored corners of the dial, like BBC America’s loopy Orphan Black and Cinemax’s pulpy Banshee — or off of it completely, like Hulu’s pleasantly twee Moone Boy and the escapist, mashed-up bliss of The Wrong Mans. The best network show of the fall was ABC’s Trophy Wife, a warm comedy that ought to be the new Modern Family but instead seems modeled on NBC’s loved but little-watched Parks and Recreation. Perhaps it’s telling that these were programs I barely wrote about. It’s not that they were minor, it’s just that they seemed somehow intimate, more like private affairs than ammunition for public discourse.

Maybe that was the wrong way to consider them. With their reduced ambitions, knowing nods to genre, and highly specific points of view, these shows were a lot more relevant to the way we watch now than a splashy series finale. For as much as I’d like to hold up “Felina” as the moment the monoculture vanished to that big meth lab in the sky, the truth is it happened long ago. Ten million viewers is a pretty big deal for 2013, but it’s a pittance in the scheme of things: It was only 15 years ago that Seinfeld‘s last gasp drew 76 million people.6 The hum of online conversation made Breaking Bad‘s finale feel bigger than it was in the same way the glow of the television screen can make us feel less alone.

In a thoughtful essay for The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal recently made the case that after years of prioritizing “nowness,” the Internet is slowly pulling back from what he calls “the stream.” By this he means a move away from the fevered gush of Twitter and the Facebook timeline and toward a version of online life that is a little more removed, a touch more calm. A lake, not a river. One can’t keep up with everything, so why even try? To make his case, he points to the rise of the proudly impermanent Snapchat, evergreen and “snowfalled” longform stories, and, yes, Netflix’s season-dumping strategy. Rather than mourning the loss of the collective, he considers these moves from the opposite perspective: Taking a step back not only allows the breathing room necessary to appreciate and process, it restores a cultural sense of boundaries, of beginnings and endings. In TV’s post-stream future, we might share less but appreciate more. Everybody’s watching. Does it matter if we’re all looking in different directions?

Filed Under: Breaking Bad, Television, TV

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald