News Column

On TV: The Last Batch: The tale of 'Breaking Bad's' Walter White comes to an end

August 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 11--"Breaking Bad," the landmark show about schoolteacher-turned-drug kingpin Walter White, wraps up its five seasons with the final eight episodes beginning tonight on AMC.

Its end also marks the start of the final chapter for the current golden age of television.

The first golden age was the 1950s, back when television was one giant experiment in art and entertainment. Comedians like Bob Hope, Steve Allen and Milton Berle were inventing television comedy, and original stories from Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Sterling and Reginald Rose dotted a schedule full of high-production value anthology programs.

Honestly, many programs from that era are bad. But there was some true quality, even if little has survived to today.

Television matured in the 1970s, and the second golden age arrived in the 1980s, launching with "Hill Street Blues," which nearly every show can be traced back to.

For the next decade, TV shows uprooted the formula of traditional genres -- "St. Elsewhere," "Cagney & Lacey," "Moonlighting," even "Cheers" -- and then came the experimental exercises in storytelling and mythology -- "Twin Peaks," "thirtysomething," "Quantum Leap," "Picket Fences." The sitcom also blossomed after nearing woeful irrelevance.

By the mid '90s, TV had cooled off, but there were shows that linked to the modern golden age such as "ER," "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The X-Files."

This current golden age began in the late 1990s, but it wouldn't slam on the gas pedal until "The Sopranos" in 1999.

Tony Soprano was 40, heavy-set, having affairs, unable to keep his life together and a mobster; he was unlike anything seen before. And he certainly wasn't a hero. He was a bad guy, but one to root for.

"The Sopranos" was soon joined by "The Wire," "Deadwood," "24" and "The Shield" and a few years later by "Friday Night Lights," "Battlestar Galactica," "Mad Men" and, in 2008, "Breaking Bad."

The era has been an echo of 1970s American cinema, which had many dark themes and numerous antiheroes from the minds of Scorsese, Coppola and Altman. Television in the first decade of the 21st century was now the premier art form and was finally out of the film industry's shadow.

The second golden age was plot-driven. It determined that stories don't have to start and end in an hour. This golden age is also character driven, something "Breaking Bad" revolutionized.

From a show's beginning and end, plenty of plot happens, but the characters may only change minimally. "Breaking Bad" turned that concept on its ear.

The show's star, Walter White, does a 180-degree turn during the series' run -- taking a school teacher and making him a master drug dealer. When Walter reaches that point of "evil" is up for debate, but through the series we see him go deeper and deeper into a dark and unbalanced lifestyle.

The same goes for everyone around Walter: his wife, his son, his brother-in-law, his business partner. The show is a story about these characters just as much as it's about the events they are going through. It's a balance we've never seen before.

Vic Mackey was already a dirty cop when "The Shield" began, and Don Draper was already a jerk when "Mad Men" started. Walter was an unhappy, but respected chemistry teacher.

In these last eight episodes of "Breaking Bad," the questions are about Walter's fate. Will he be redeemed? Will he end up alone? Will he get away with everything? Will he live?

And with "Mad Men" hanging up its hat next year, this age is writing its final chapter, but it doesn't mean an upcoming decline in quality. Reality TV is booming, but so are the number of channels providing good programming.

There are already plenty of shows trying new storytelling techniques that are having ripple effects -- the season finale of "Defiance" had the fingerprints of "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones" all over it.

"Breaking Bad" threw a door wide open on the balance between plot and characters. Now, the next generation will attempt to up the ante.

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(c)2013 the Ames Tribune, Iowa

Visit the Ames Tribune, Iowa at www.amestrib.com

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