All Good Shows Must Come to An End. [On The Contrary]
Breaking Bad is hands down the best show on television right now, and maybe the best ever. It certainly ranks up there. No show has been able to sustain such dramatic momentum and continuously improve from season to season quite so well, without devolving into a soap opera or throwing out random subplots. Most impressively, unlike the other shows considered the greats by elitist television viewers (a label that would have been an oxymoron 15 years ago)—shows like Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos, et al—Breaking Bad has done it with a very small cast of characters and essentially one story line. Yes, the show takes twists and turns, but the entire story of Walter White is about a high school chemistry teacher learning that he is dying of cancer and making the choice to cook crystal meth to earn money for his family. Everything else in the series follows this choice. Series creator Vince Gilligan has said he wants to turn Mr. Chips into Tony Montana. Structurally speaking, it’s really one big movie told over multiple seasons that will culminate in the ultimate fate of Mr. White. Oh what a ride it’s been so far.
Each episode is about as visceral an experience as I’ve ever had in front of a television set—and I’m a sports fan. It’s the only show I’ve ever watched that actually provokes a vocal response from me other than laughter (although there’s plenty of that in the show’s underappreciated comedic side). I don’t think I’ve actually been moved to speak to a show like this before (unless you count hurling insults during my attempt to watch the show Glee, but that’s another column), alternating cheering, shouting warnings, and using a lot of profanity.
In case you can’t tell, I like the show. A lot. I like it so much, it pains me to say I’m glad it’s almost over.
This might sound puzzling. I spend every episode I watch riveted, repeatedly checking my DVR timeline, hoping the show is not almost over. But in the larger scheme of the series, I know it needs to end. And it needs to end soon. There is simply no way to take the story much farther without straining it. As much as I want it to go on, if it does I might regret it in the long run. The fact that Gilligan has stated its next season will be its final is a good sign that I won’t have to face the decline.
The decline of T.V. shows is tough, but happens to most series. I’m not just talking about “jumping the shark.” The experience of any kind of story, be it told, read, acted, or whatever, is much like a meal. After a certain point, no matter how good or imaginative the new courses are, you are simply too full to keep enjoying it.
If a show ends at just the right point (or even slightly prematurely), the stature of the show can only grow. On the other hand, a brilliant show can sap its own greatness by remaining on the air long after we’ve lost interest. The Simpsons continues to pull a large viewership after over twenty seasons, but it has lost the sense it once had of being culturally relevant. It’s told every story it can with its characters and has fallen into repeating itself, creating poor facsimiles of earlier (better executed) storylines. How many new dumb ideas can Homer have, how many times can Lisa awkwardly fall in love, or can one of Bart’s pranks accidentally incite a Springfield-wide catastrophe? For people like me who grew up with the show, The Simpsons will always hold an important spot in our lives and sense of humor, but as a show it has become a parody of itself and has called into question just how good it actually was in the early days. This is unfair, since the episodes of its first decade still hold up remarkably well, but overexposure through syndication and the watered-down new episodes make it easy to forget just how great it was.
Imagine The Simpsons had called it quits after seven seasons, like Seinfield. There would probably be little argument that it was the greatest and most influential comedy ever put on television. Maybe this is an old argument—it’s better to burn out than to fade away. The fact is, whatever your favorite show might be, at some point it’s going to end, and I for one would rather have the shows I care about finish strong rather than overstay their welcome.
Breaking Bad will always be regarded as a great show, but if it manages to maintain the level of quality it has now, it could be a legendarily good show. You have to know when to leave a party, to leave them satisfied but still wanting a little more, and hopefully Vince Gilligan has enough respect for the chemistry he has created to finish it off right.