The “Second Golden Age of Television” will be written about for decades to come, and through it all there are four shows that arguably stand at the center: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. There are certainly other series crucial to this Second Golden Age, from Deadwood to Lost to Game of Thrones, but these four are the Mount Rushmore of what is now called “Prestige TV.” They are the shows that started it all, that built a foundation for our current TV landscape.
However, I’d argue that one of these shows in particular stands above the rest in terms of influence. Now that there are almost 500 scripted TV series on a variety of cable, premium, and online platforms, a Second Golden Age has given way to “Peak TV.” In this new wave of content, must-watch TV series debut every week, while Netflix, Amazon and Hulu funnel billions into original series, and cable, premium, and broadcast channels scramble to catch up (not to mention other streaming players like YouTube, Crackle, and more). A boom in these more serious or boundary-pushing Prestige TV series as part of the Peak TV phenomenon is a direct result of the cultural impact of those four aforementioned series, but perhaps none has had a more significant effect than Breaking Bad.
Creator Vince Gilligan’s AMC series began kind of quietly. Mad Men had premiered on the network sixth months earlier and wasn’t yet on the radar for many beyond the critics who praised it; AMC was still fledgling when it came to original shows. However, two things raised the profile of Breaking Bad significantly over time: Bryan Cranston kept winning Best Actor Emmys for the show, signal-boosting its existence every awards season, and the show was made available on Netflix before “binge-watching” was a really thing, allowing potential viewers to catch up before Season 4 began.
The rest is well-documented history. The series increased sharply in the ratings in Season 4, and won back-to-back Best Drama Series Emmys for its final two seasons. It was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, and its influence is still felt far and wide even a decade after it first aired.
It’s important to note, of course, that several key Prestige TV shows paved the way for Breaking Bad’s success. The Sopranos was really one of the first drama series to present viewers with a deeply flawed anti-hero as its protagonist. Creator David Chase and star James Gandolfini essentially got viewers to empathize with a murderous mob leader for years on end, which led to a string of imitators featuring “Bad Men” as the main characters. This simply wasn’t done previously, but between Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, Dexter, House of Cards, etc. it’s now become the norm. Almost every Prestige TV series since has focused on having a “Bad Man” as its core (which hasn’t always been a good thing).
Shows like Lost also paved the way for the intensely serialized storytelling of Breaking Bad. That ABC series was groundbreaking in that viewers couldn’t simply tune in whenever they felt like it—the show was packed with twists and turns that relied upon the audience’s serious understanding of the events and characters of previous episodes and seasons, which wasn’t exactly the traditional way of doing things on a network series.
Novelistic storytelling was a key to Breaking Bad’s success, and one of the main reasons it’s remained so influential. Gilligan pitched the series as watching a character go from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and indeed the transformation of Cranston’s Walter White from genial high school teacher to murderous drug kingpin was a slow, intensely compelling process that happened over the course of the entire series. There was a throughline, the sense that we were watching one story unfold instead of a steady stream of case-of-the-week business with a smattering of character drama sprinkled throughout. It was a story to invest in, stress over, and become enamored with.
In the hopes of replicating a successful novelistic storytelling structure, other series have taken this idea literally, opting to write an entire Series Bible before the show is even greenlit. The irony is that while Gilligan and his staff were tracking the Mr. Chips to Scarface arc, they routinely wrote themselves into corners without knowing how they would get out. This continued to the end: when they wrote the Season 5 premiere, in which a flash forward reveals a bearded Walt opening his trunk to find a machine gun, Gilligan admits he and his team didn’t yet know what the gun would be used for. But they trusted that they would find an interesting story there, and indeed they did. Time and time again.
Breaking Bad stood on the shoulders of early Prestige TV series in many ways (also taking a cue from The Wire to smartly incorporate wry humor as a way to balance its dark tone), but still, none of those isolated elements can guarantee a hit. What did guarantee it was that Breaking Bad had it all, as one of the best-written, best-acted, and most cinematic shows in the history of television. There was no Show Bible on how to make something like Breaking Bad—it just had that sweet, sweet alchemy of something special and truly unique.