Breaking Bad: What Vince Gilligan did to the television audience

Gilligan, like his protagonist, is a master at pushing his product – and we are delighted to do business with him says India Ross

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The Independent Culture

It’s an atypical Monday morning. I’m scrunched into an old armchair that had been primed for comfort in anticipation hours before. The pillow is hugged up behind my knees, and all doors, windows and blinds have been sealed off. It’s an old routine for a new way of life: Breaking Bad is back.

Getting overly excited about television is not one of my healthier habits, but thanks to Vince Gilligan, creator of the surgically-executed five-seasoner which re-imagined modern morality, meth culture and whether it’s acceptable to use ‘bitch’ as punctuation, I am rewarded in my addiction. I text a friend – he’s mimicking my pillow-hug, and if the internet is anything to go by, we’re not alone.

There is a sense of solidarity among TV people. A feeling of guilty togetherness most likely predicated on some bigger sense that we should be spending our days contributing actively to society rather than vegetating alone in our bedrooms. This, though, is old news – Sopranos-era news. What’s different in the age of Breaking Bad is that everyone, it seems, is a TV person. The discussions, debates and prophesying are no longer covert operations to be dug away at years beyond the finale - they are current, collaborative and loud.

One doesn’t simply start watching Breaking Bad in a casual capacity. It is a case of submitting yourself happily, voluntarily, to a cult of sleuthing and over-analysis. An episode is no longer a forty-six-minute slice out of the working day - it is a meal of many courses, from the speculative build-up to the post-match Twitter, with some meatier material for true devotees. What Gilligan has created is something beyond the box – a true ‘water-cooler’ event: ‘Have you heard about what’s going on in Whitehall?’ ‘Nah, but I saw what’s going on at Los Pollos Hermanos’.

We’ve seen this kind of fandom before. Lost, Dr Who – these shows are a way of life. But what was previously underground, furtive and stigmatised in a Games Workshoppy sort of way is now legitimised and applauded by the mainstream media at large. For the audience, as for Walter White, the Breaking Bad experience began as the giddy thrill of belonging to a shady and deviant club, and we were permitted a parallel life where our inner criminal rubbed alongside our outer citizen: ‘You may know a lot about chemistry, man,’ says Jesse, ‘But you don’t know jack about slangin’ dope’. Yet in 2013, Breaking Bad is a way of life, and a working knowledge of the methamphetamine business is no longer the guilty badge of honour it once was. Looking twice at your pest control guy is positively de rigueur.

Given a fairly niche audience – 5.9 mill as of last week - Breaking Bad is wildly over-represented in the press. It is as if the world’s arts journos are all secretly in league with Gilligan like so many of Walter’s Albuquerquean street slingers. A cycle of chicken-and-egg, no one can really know whether the hype triggered the articles or the articles triggered the hype. A piece on Slate, which catalogues every colour worn by every major character in every episode of Breaking Bad as if Walt’s daily selection of chequered grandpa shirt were in some way crucial to any murderous trajectory he may choose to follow, is typical of the extent of the media circus. A stream of fashion-consciousness, it had racked up 898 ‘likes’ at the last count.

What has really changed in the last five years is what it means to be a viewer. Consider a nineties night in with Tony and Carmela - it was self-contained, just us and them. Our own personal commentary, which would be otherwise forgotten in the humdrum working week, was confined instead to the immediate present and the immediate living room: ‘No way did they just cut to black!’ Today, Netflix and Breaking Bad give us a richer and less transitory experience - a private activity has become public, and we are swept into a big conversation to which our viewing and surfing habits contribute, whether or not we choose to tweet about it. Participation may not be mandatory, but it is, for most of us, part of the fun.

Today, everyone is a TV critic. I think the average viewer is digging deeper for their analyses than ever before, and that this can only give a fuller viewing experience. Surface thrills are no longer enough, and it is increasingly tricky to flog a second-rate show. Here, the tag ‘golden age’ for once seems fitting. There is, however, a flip side to this newly-interactive experience. An audience so exposed to (often conflicting) commentaries is denied the right to truly think for itself: ‘I liked that episode, did you read the New York Times on it?’ We must pick an opinion team rather than populating our own. The picture we have in our minds of Tony Soprano is perhaps less coherent but more individualised than our well-oiled Walter White, whose character we have all, season-by-season, nailed to some locale on the casual-sociopath-to –evil-incarnate scale. It is a neat but reductive way of looking at complex characters: Heisenberg (the clue’s in the name) is meant to be elusive.

Vince Gilligan, like so many post-noughties TV types, can’t dodge his audience. What he has created is a big, collaborative monster – a couch-centric jury which probes and intellectualises his every move. But the big Bad conversation is for the interested parties a burden worth shouldering, and the show’s fifth season sabbatical, an unusual move, was surely planned with the Twittersphere in mind - they took Walter off the air and let the internet do the rest. Sunday’s renewal scored a personal best in the ratings and blew Mad Men and Game of Thrones out of the primetime water. Perhaps Mr Gilligan, like Mr White, has found himself in the ‘empire business.’

What we have arrived at is a new model entirely – a TV 2.0 – in which Breaking Bad, among others, has a true foothold in everyday discourse. Vince Gilligan’s creation is now bigger than him; it is public property, no longer the artist’s exclusive domain. As a result, it has to be conceded, we get more from the show and the show gets more from us. The sense of interactivity, so lacking in the cinema audience, is made possible by the timescale of a television show, and as seasons unfold we perceive ourselves to be in conversation with the writers, each season their calculated answer to our many, agonising questions.

The ending of Breaking Bad will be autopsied long past its airdate. It will be judged, not just against The Sopranos, but with the viewing public, and its many home-grown conclusions, in mind. A debate which has moved beyond light entertainment to share the floor with current and more pressing affairs, Walter’s fate is as newsworthy as the next story. It seems that Gilligan, like his protagonist, is a master at pushing his product – and we are delighted to do business with him.