How Breaking Bad Got It Right And Why It Can Change TV
Breaking Bad did a lot of things right. That may be the understatement of the year, especially after last night's particularly satisfying finale, but it's well worth noting that the series' had a pretty amazing run. Not only did it deliver the goods, fully wrapping up its story in a well-paced and timely manner, but it grew its audience throughout the course of its run, rather than shedding viewers as some shows tend to do when they start to show their age. How can the industry learn from the series' success? The obvious answer would be by giving Vince Gilligan, the writers and the cast lots and lots of work, but there are other factors to consider when looking at what worked so well for this series as a whole.
Variety put together a pretty spot-on list of things Breaking Bad did right, and most of them are items other shows can benefit from. First up is "Patience is more than just a virtue." The site notes Breaking Bad's just-ok ratings in its earlier seasons. This show didn't have a pre-built fan base to kick it off as The Walking Dead did, nor did it have a mega-famous cast. Sure, some people recognized Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the MIddle, though he wasn't exactly a household name at that point. And now actually feels like a good time to admit I didn't even make the connection between Walter White and Malcolm in the Middle's Hal until somewhere near the start of Breaking Bad's second season. Admittedly, I was only ever a casual fan of MitM, but the memorably mind-blowing realization that it was the same guy is probably more a testament to Cranston's talent than anything else. Or it was the mustache. Regardless, the point is, Breaking Bad started from scratch on a network that was still earning its stripes on original programming, and worked its way up to the top. Networks are impatient for a hit, and if they don't see it in the first season, they want to stop spending money on the show and move on to something else. Breaking Bad is a beautiful example of what a good series can become when given time to grow.
That brings us to Variety's next point. NETFLIX. Sure, AMC could have relied on holiday marathons to draw in new viewers, but putting the series on Netflix midway through its run allowed viewers to get caught up between seasons and start watching along with everyone else. These "bandwagon fans" helped bring the show from 1-2 million viewers an episode to 5-6 million viewers an episode in its final half-season. Even looking at the numbers between Season 5A and 5B, the show's viewership grew by millions, and then closed out to an audience of a whopping 10.3 million. Of course, word of mouth and critical praise surely helped the series, but making the drama available through a subscription service like Netflix ensured that people who wanted to watch the show had an easy and relatively affordable way to do it. We're seeing other networks take advantage of digital syndication as a way of building their audience. ABC put Scandal on Netflix partway through the series' second season and the series went from 6.7 million viewers at the start of Season 2 to 9.1 million by the second season finale. If you want new viewers, you have to give them a convenient way to get caught up. Netflix isn't a bad place to start.
Another point Variety makes is about leaving something to the imagination when it comes to gore. There are arguments to be made against that one, however, if we recall the infamous tortoise scene from Season 2, and of course, Gus' "face off." But it's true, the series has held back in times when it could have been dripping in gore, and falls behind some other series in terms of just how graphic the violence gets.
Point 4 cracks open a whole other can of worms. "Think beyond the pilot." Breaking Bad's pilot barely scratches the surface of what the series went on to be. The problem here is the nature of the TV series development process for network and cable TV. To sum it up, a project goes into development. If the network likes the concept/script, they order it to pilot. The pilot gets made and if the network likes the pilot, they order it to series and more episodes are produced. So the pilot is as much a pitch to get the series made as it is the introduction to the story. Finding a balance between introduction and sell is tricky. Writers want to demonstrate the series' potential as much as they can in the pilot, and sometimes to do that, they have to show too many of the show's cards in the process. And in the end, a good pilot doesn't guarantee a good series. But as Breaking Bad proves, an intriguing pilot can lead to an incredible series with time to grow and develop the characters. That takes us back to the "patience" point. Give a good show time to grow and it could go on to be one of TV's best dramas.
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