2013: The year television broke bad

This article was going to be called “the year in TV.” But really there was only one story as far as TV was concerned, and it was Breaking Bad. In 2013, nothing else mattered anywhere near as much.

It’s not just that Breaking Bad was a great show full of dark characters, complex wit and heart. In fact the show itself being so good was really only secondary to the phenomenon it created. What’s most interesting is the parallel between real life and the most heartwrenching hour of the year, “Ozymandias.”

The original poem reads,

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

It’s about the fact that everything mighty eventually falls, and no amount of bluster can stop that. The episode was just that, the literal fall of Walter White. But more importantly, in that hour of television, it became clear that television itself, the live TV model that we have embraced for almost 75 years, has fallen as well.

Breaking Bad started out as a barely noticed show on a barely noticed network back in 2008. AMC had Mad Men but it was otherwise known as the home to bowdlerized old movies chock-a-block with commercials. AMC was the definition of “basic cable,” one of those channels you didn’t pay for but occasionally watched. The show itself puttered along for a bit and suffered from the writers’ strike of 2007-2008 as much as any show.

While it got good ratings and had some buzz, Breaking Bad didn’t really catch fire in the public consciousness until its final season. In the past it would have been impossible for people to catch up with such a deeply layered storyline by coming in at year five. Television historically has either avoided such complicated storytelling or at least introduced separate arcs for each season. Certainly there were different arcs in Breaking Bad but you didn’t get anything close to the full experience unless you were able to see Walter White change so dramatically.

What changed in 2013? Breaking Bad’s real victory was its use of Netflix. From 2011 to 2013, Netflix beefed up its stable of TV shows so that by the time BB’s season five aired, seasons one through four were available for your streaming pleasure. All of a sudden it became possible for even the uninitiated to catch up.

And not only did the public catch up… every other network caught on to how they could use streaming to their advantage. All the major broadcasters had apps already, but all of a sudden every new TV show ended with “Catch up from the beginning with full episodes available at…” and that, my friends, is the big story of 2013.

The fact that there is any hope for linear broadcasting at all is because the live TV model, like old Ozymandias himself, got chopped down at the knees while broadcasters embraced streaming as a way to get more viewers. For a decade, television has relied on “unscripted” event programming as a way to tear viewers from DVRs and computers. Finally, in 2013, they realized that if they were to have quality scripted programming, the one thing missing was the very enemy they had fought to contain. The very monuments that TV sought to erect meant nothing until they embraced the sands of change that swirled around them.

That, dear readers, is what mattered in TV in 2013.