The cyborg historians of the future will claim that 2013 was the year that television stopped being television. Not because there weren’t great TV shows. In fact, there was a greater diversity of good shows than ever before, on broadcast and cable and beyond. But I do mean “beyond”: This was the first year when some of the best TV shows weren’t properly on TV.
Netflix launched big with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black and the mosiac reboot of Arrested Development. (Adorably, they’re still producing Lilyhammer, the Remember WENN of this particular revolution.)
No other streaming-only service could match Netflix’s quality. Amazon had Alpha House and Betas, which weren’t much discussed outside of Greek Alphabet fan clubs. But neither show is terrible. They’d both be the best new sitcom on NBC. Elsewhere in the industry, HBO – the Netflix of 2003 – took baby steps towards a standalone package. It’s a reflection of the new realities of viewership: For a ridiculously large amount of illegal downloaders, Game of Thrones isn’t TV or HBO.
But there’s another angle on the state of television in 2013. The Binge-Watching Revolution gave way to a Live-Watching Counterrevolution: If a show could break through into a certain sphere of importance, it became mandatory viewing. You couldn’t even pull the time-honored DVR trick of starting 15 minutes late and skipping the commercials – not unless you wanted to risk intra-episode microspoilers on Twitter.
No TV shows better defined this moment than a pair of dramas airing on AMC (the HBO of 2009.) Breaking Bad ran its final stretch of eight episodes, ending on September 29 with one of the most-talked-about finales in the history of things with conclusions. The Walking Dead bookended Bad with two stretches of eight episodes that saw the zombie powerhouse escalate from ratings juggernaut into a ratings phenomenon. In 2013, Dead went from making history to becoming history: It’s now a turning point in how we think about television, a signpost for the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.
In some ways, the shows couldn’t be more different. Breaking Bad was a show with a steady cast and a steady crew. The final season mostly zeroed in on characters present from Day One. (The finale itself gave away a significant amount of screen-time real estate to Elliot Schwartz, a character who only appeared in a few scenes of the fifth episode of the first season.) Behind the scenes, creator Vince Gilligan spent the season on a whistlestop media victory tour. Ever the gentleman, Gilligan took care to praise his writing staff, which remained basically unchanged since the early days.
Compare that to Walking Dead, a show whose narrative structure is basically Main Character Whac-A-Mole. The sixteen episodes of 2013 iced several longtime leads. Story gravity forced Dead to introduce two gigantic new groups of people in season 4, just to immediately kill them off in a climactic tanks-and-grenades-and-katanas-and-cute-kid-killers showdown. It’s Whac-a-Mole behind the scenes, too: The show came into 2013 fresh from firing yet another showrunner. If Breaking Bad was an auteurist work – a product of the Difficult Men Era – then Walking Dead is an old-fashioned company product, the work of many cooks in a rapidly-expanding kitchen.
But the shows had their similarities. Although both shows were undeniably thrillers, they shared a leisurely aesthetic. TV drama is trending kinetic lately, but both Bad and Dead favored a gradual pace: Long dialogue scenes leading to unbearably tense action events.
There was a similar rhythm to the plot, too, especially if you have a bit of imagination. On Breaking Bad, the lead character was split in two halves: Family man Walter White and criminal mastermind Heisenberg. In 2013, Walking Dead followed a similar bifurcation: Bruised ex-lawman Rick Grimes met his double in the Governor, another grieving family man, another leader forced to make tough decisions, another British actor trying to hit a Southern accent with a sawn-off shotgun. So Walking Dead began its fourth season with Rick trying to live a normal life – family, farm, done killin’ – while Bad began its final stretch with Walt out of the game. And while Bad sent Walt on a vision quest to New Hampshire, Dead sent the Governor on a rambling two-episode journey down a lost and lonely highway. They both had new names (Mr. Lambert/Brian) and they both grew Dark Night of the Soul Beards.
And the shows were both events, in a way that television – even great television – rarely is. They were to Sunday what summer movies are to Friday: An essential part of the pop calendar. (AMC is franchising both series like crazy: They both had their own talk shows, and both have looming prequel-spinoffs.) So when we talk about television in 2013, to a certain extent, we’re talking about Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. But which bleakly-tragic neo-western series ruled the year? Let’s run down the math, using science and pseudo-science.
Ratings: Breaking Bad didn’t just go down swinging. It went out with a streak of home runs, followed by a grand slam. Ratings for the final season increased with every episode. The series finale was the most-watched episode Breaking Bad ever had. Those are heartening numbers. They validate a generation of fan theories about their cult TV shows: If the network builds a great idiosyncratic TV show, and if they let the TV show grow, then the viewership will grow, too. (It helps if the show lives in reruns on a popular streaming service: You could argue that Breaking Bad was a Netflix-by-default product.)
So Breaking Bad went out hitting home runs: Good for Breaking Bad! Meanwhile, The Walking Dead only hits grand slams. The zombie series creates new records just to break them. The show’s viewership numbers are so good that Talking Dead – the yellow-billed oxpecker to Walking Dead’s black rhinoceros – regularly gets more ratings than anyone every thought a show starring Chris Hardwick’s Couch could get. Breaking Bad was the cult hit that became, briefly and wonderfully, a popular success. The Walking Dead seems to redefine success every week.
Quality: Maybe it’s the large episode order. Maybe it’s the showrunner parade. Maybe it’s the weirdly low budget. For whatever reason, Dead was a schizophrenic entertainment in 2013. The back half of season 3 built to a Woodbury-Prison showdown, and then dropped the ball. Season 4 featured some of the show’s best-ever sequences – like the eerie fairy-tale interlude between Rick and the Irish woman in the premiere. But the plague subplot was a blind alley; the Governor interlude lollygagged through two episodes, and featured the show’s umpteenth iteration of the Angelic Little Blonde Girl; and there was the bizarre choice to send Carol packing literally right when she was getting interesting.
Dead can deliver when it has to. (See: The scorched-earth midseason finale, essentially a Rick-Governor do-over.) But Bad was in a whole different weight class. The final season turned Walt’s downward spiral into the TV equivalent of a modern myth, complete with a Sergio Leone western showdown and the best use of Robert Forster ever, really. Dead at its best has a distinctive tone of apocalyptic dread. Bad could do apocalyptic dread, and then turn on a dime into farcical hilarity. (How ‘bout some guacamole?)
Cultural Impact: A subjective measurement, yes, but not as much as you might think. The Walking Dead got massive ratings in both of its eight-episode cycles during parts of the year (February-March and October-December) that used to be considered the “regular” TV season. Breaking Bad aired less episodes this year, but they aired at a pivotal moment on the pop culture calendar: From August 11 through September 29, roughly the period between the end of the summer movie season and the real-official-genuine start of the Fall TV season.
For those two months, it was possible to feel like the show simply was pop culture. There were essays about plot points and elaborate fan theories, there were bets about who might die and debates about who should die. Every AMC show has a lead actress who plays the character who gets all the fan rage; only Breaking Bad’s actress got to write about it in the New York Times. The mere fact that Low Winter Sun aired on the same night turned Low Winter Sun into the best running joke of the fall.
Industry Influence: A more subjective measurement, and one that won’t really be measured for years. Over a decade ago, The Sopranos redefined the contours of television in a way that still reverberates. (In 1999, HBO was nervous about letting Tony strangle a guy; in 2013, a definition-of-mainstream CBS procedural let its handsome protagonist do just about the same thing.) Presumably, there are a whole host of present and future TV people who, invigorated by Breaking Bad go-for-broke run, will create shows that honor the heritage of Walter White and Vince Gilligan.
Maybe that will happen. For now, though, we live in a TV landscape that Dead created. Alongside Game of Thrones, the zombie series has set in stone a new kind of success story for cable television that is feeding back towards the network mother ships: The big-ensemble genre show, based on a pre-existing source, just serialized enough to build an audience in binge-reruns that will start watching weekly for fear of spoilers. And unlike Thrones, Dead doesn’t need to film on four continents. It’s unfair to reduce either show to a chemical formula – they’re both built from too many fascinating unstable elements – but Breaking Bad vibes like an unrepeatable phenomenon (a wholly original story about a cancerous meth cook?) whereas Dead reads like a playbook for success (Find graphic novel or book series or public domain brand, and kill people off every few episodes.)
Career Halo Effect: Bryan Cranston gets plum roles in quality pictures like Argo and Drive, plus a big role in 2014 tentpole Godzilla and ambient sense of cultural sanctification, by which I mean he gets to dance with Stephen Colbert. Aaron Paul gets a Ridley Scott ancient-battle epic and cross-your-fingers videogame adaptation. Vince Gilligan gets one show and another show and a guest spot on Community, too. They all got Emmys, and they might get more.
The Walking Dead cast gets none of those things. Not yet, anyway. But hey, Comic-Con loves ‘em!
FINAL RESULT: Breaking Bad wins 2013, waving farewell as it disappears into the Big Netflix Cloud in the Sky. But Walking Dead shouldn’t worry. It owns the future. For now.