The impending demise of 'Breaking Bad': Are end dates actually good for TV shows?

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Image Credit: AMC

We are closer to the end of Breaking Bad than we are to the beginning: After a month filled with backstage hand-wringing, in which prognostications for the show’s future regularly shifted from a six-episode final season to a theoretically much longer run on a different network, AMC has officially ordered a 16-episode final season. Showrunner Vince Gilligan was ecstatic to have the knowledge — rare in the TV world — of when, exactly, his show would be concluding, saying that knowing the show’s end-date “Will allow us to properly build our story to a satisfying conclusion.” End dates are a rarity on American television — the most famous example is Lost, which officially announced a May 2010 series finale in May 2007. The announcement of the end of Lost happened in the midst of the show’s post-Hydra creative resurrection, and ever since then, conventional wisdom has stated that setting a finite number of episodes makes a TV show better.

The problem with the End Date Theory is that it isn’t really true. It has the whiff of truth; it seems logical that storytellers should know when their story ends. But that logic assumes that TV show storytelling ought to follow classical rules of narrative, when the entire nature of the medium makes that impossible. Unlike novelists or movie screenwriters or playwrights, TV writers don’t have the benefit of going back to correct old drafts — they can’t change information in the show’s series premiere two years later. Additionally, TV writers have the curious power to witness their work in finished form while they’re still working on it; that’s why most TV shows go through a process of adjustment in their first few seasons, as the writing staff learns what their actors can do and begin to find their show’s specific strike zone.

Most of all, in the modern age, TV writers are more aware than ever about the audience’s reaction to their series… and they’re often very conscious of chasing the audience’s interest. Call it the Nikki & Paulo Effect: When Lost fans rebelled against the miserable duo of new characters, the creators killed them off in a spectacular fashion. (The Nikki & Paulo-centric episode gets a bad rap, but I think it’s an underrated gem.) The key thing to remember here is that TV shows can course-correct. If something’s not working, they can change. If a romance isn’t clicking, then it can end; if a bunch of new characters are boring people, then the show can stage an exciting death orgy and wipe the deck clean. (The best example I can think of is 24‘s third season, which started out as a lame season about druglord brothers and suddenly turned into an awesome season about Jack Bauer fighting his very own Alec Trevelyan.) In a fascinating interview with Alan Sepinwall, the Breaking Bad showrunner noted that the writing process for season 3 was “like improvisational jazz.”

The problem is that, to a certain extent, having an end date ruins the possibility of course correction — and improvisation becomes more and more difficult. It’s true that most creators of serialized television shows have a vague idea of where they want their show to end, but when you’re working towards a vague goal, you can take plenty of exciting jaunts, and change direction if you find a blind alley. If you look closely at long-running serialized shows that went into their final season knowing that they were reaching an end, you find a depressing amount of common problems: Storylines slow to a crawl. The characters seem more like chess pieces being set up for a series finale mastestroke. Characters or plot arcs that would have been jettisoned in earlier seasons become incredibly important, simply because the creators need them to reach their planned ending — call this “The Lapidus Corollary,” named for the character on Lost who hung around for three seasons just because the writers needed an airplane pilot. It was true of Battlestar Galactica, which spent a depressing amount of its final season devoted to Kara Thrace’s search for herself. It was true of The Wire, which spent its last season restating old points about the horribleness of contemporary bureaucracy and dallied on the interminable fake serial killer plot. It was certainly true of Lost, which had a final season that was simultaneously too static (oh god, the Temple) and too frantic (quick, go to Hydra Island! Now come back to the main Island! Now go back to Hydra Island!).

Mind you: All three of those shows are incredible works, representing the pinnacle of the television form, and there are masterful episodes in their final seasons. But that’s what makes me so skeptical about end dates, and about the whole notion of “endings” in regards to TV shows: Even the best, the very best television shows seem to fall victim to narrative paralysis as their absolute climaxes approach.

Sometimes, this has the chilling effect of completely altering a show’s DNA. For much of its running time, the joy of Battlestar Galactica was that it was not a typical sci-fi show about big space battles… and then, somehow, the series finale wound up hinging on a big space battle. Or, to pick an example that is the geographic opposite of Battlestar Galactica: The best thing about Sex and the City was that it had a complicated, endlessly skeptical perspective on romance, but the series finale gave every character their own fairy-tale worthy happy ending. (Todd VanDerWerff of the AV Club noted that the planned conclusion of Deadwood would have featured an elaborate cataclysm seemingly at odds with the show’s subtle themes… which is why, bizarrely, Deadwood might have benefited from not having a final season.)

Breaking Bad is an indisputably great show, and it would be ridiculous to become skeptical about its future just because its brilliant writers now know exactly how much longer they have to trace their characters’ moral decline. But it’s important to remember that only one American TV show has thus far benefited from having a very specific end date in mind going into its final season. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that The Sopranos is the rare show in modern television that openly refused to end with anything like an explosive climax, or a final reckoning, or a closing statement… because it didn’t really end at all. Can Breaking Bad equal The Sopranos‘ accomplishment? We’ll know in 2013.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
‘Breaking Bad’ renewed for final season

Comments (55 total) Add your comment
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  • Mike

    Darren – still reading the column but I must correct you. Damon and Carlton admitted that they already knew the Nikki Paulo thing wasn’t working before the first episode with them in it hit the airwaves. Of course, that was the season with 6 eps in the fall followed by 16 in the winter/spring so it just seemed like they wrote them off because of the fan’s reaction. But…then again, they knew the fans would hate them so they indirectly DID do it for the fans! lol

  • outside agitator

    end dates are good for shows. sometimes early cancellations are, too. look what’s happened with The Office. not to mention Lost, Ugly Betty, The Sopranos, The X-Files. a tight 6 or 7 seasons is the most good writing any show can hope for. it was a shame Angel was cancelled after 5 but in retrospect, there’s very little flab on that show.

    • kelly

      Angel Season Five was a great season and the best episodes came after they found out they were cancelled. The same with Dollhouse. Joss just works better when he knows he’s already fired.

      • outside agitator

        early season 5 was a little spotty but it ended very strong. had it continued for two more seasons, it might have spiraled. Gunn going “gay now” or another mystical moppet popping up out of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, Buffy and Angel(esp Buffy) are classics but Whedon does wobble. the Buffy comics were atrocious.

  • Ronan Dex of Sateda

    LOST proves that an end date is needed. In all honesty American TV should take a cue from British TV in that seasons only have a 10-13 or less episodes and only last for a few seasons thereby telling a cohesive an quality story. I am glad that my favorite summer shows Falling Skies, The Killing, and Switched at Birth have followed this pattern – it leaves the audience wanting more which is far better than hoping something once good just goes away like Smallville

  • Matt

    An interesting article. What would you write about shows that have obviously overstayed their welcome? Wouldn’t you say it would be better – however imperfectly it ended – that it actually ended on a high note and on its own terms?

  • Mike

    (I apologize in advance for my “long-windedness”)

    Very interesting points brought up, but I can’t help but argue the counter-point. With people investing in these great shows, everyone is always expecting some kind of FINITE ending. Where is it all going? What is the point of our investment? I will always maintain that the beauty of LOST was the journey and not the destination, but at the same point…the show NEEDED to end. Without defining an end-date, they would have woven a web of mysteries that spun even more out of control than it already was. And it would have led to continuity issues and pretty much watering down the legacy of the awesome show (some will argue that the ending pretty much did that anyway). But, without that creative focus towards an end, they would have been just hanging out in polar bear cages for seasons on end.

    The Sopranos ending is a great argument, but there are still many that felt ripped off by that ending too! Of course, we’re all still talking about it so Chase definitely did something right. Flexibility/”Improvisational Jazz” is great in the middle of a story. Season 5 of LOST, in the scheme of things probably didn’t have much to do with how things played out in the last season (besides getting them all back to the island)…but those time travel episodes are some of the most rewatchable of the show. Fantastic season. But for a FINAL season? I think most people and writers would prefer to know where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. There’s still flexibility within those episodes in how to approach the final moments of the show but at least you have some kind of structure so it’s not too….well…UNSTRUCTURED! (Hey, I’m not going for the pullitzer here!) Think about Pushing Daisies…they knew while they were working on the final episodes of season 2 that the show was going off the air, so they added like 30 seconds to the end of the show to kind of…end it. That was ideal for no-one!

    I just watched The Wire from start to finish this summer and didn’t really see any issues with the final season. It did what it had to do to end the show. The serial killer stuff was kind of crazy but it worked out in the end to bring things full circle. But most will argue that season 4 was probably their pinnacle achievement (see: Journey, not destination).

    Knowing a final season in advance gives the opportunity to come full circle with a show from where it started. People hated Flash Sideways, but it gave us a chance to go back and revisit/re-experience the LOSTIES when we first met them. We spent time in the final season revisiting the sets/locations from season 1-5 that made the show the legendary show it was. It was one final curtain call for the ISLAND and I loved every minute of it. I felt Season 5 of The Wire did that to an extent as well. (of course, every season pretty much came full circle at the end with that show)

    Anyway, I’m rambling. I like your points, but I think it just begs to be debated!

  • Kate

    I agree it can be dangerous, but I think it actually adds in intrigue to a show like this. I mean, how many of us were thinking this show has a clear end date last night, they could very well kill off Jesse and we would be like, holy crap!! There is that danger now in every episode, just because it is a main character, no one is safe even if it is episode three of the final season.

    • Mike

      Good point, and in the final season of The Sopranos, it allowed “certain deaths” to happen early as well.

    • Peter

      Yeah, but on the other hand, when those deaths do happen, it’s going to be less surprising.

  • Melissa

    LOST got SO much better when they had an end date. I think it depends on the show. When a show centers around an event or a specific situation, like LOST and Breaking Bad, it helps to have a definite term limit to tell the story and be done.

  • MWeyer

    End dates are good but don’t always mean great finales. Lost had years to plan their end game and gave us a horrible final scene and BSG was rough too. Keep in mind, lots of times shows have to alter their game if popular enough as both Desperate Housewives and Supernatural were supposed to be five year runs but got extended. I guess it depends on the showrunner’s talent and passion for the work.

    • Mike

      Obviously, I disagree about the ending of LOST (see above) but your point is still a good one. As for DH, which I gave up watching, I always remember hearing Marc Cherry say he envisioned an 8 season run for the show even from the start. But, I wasn’t as obsessive about DH as I was LOST….for hopefully obvious reasons! lol

  • j

    The West Wing season 7 proves that knowing its ending is the best possible thing to happen to a show

  • tomm

    Shows that are complex should have an end date. Then producers can avoid the whining from fanatics and not worry about ratings.

  • Prof

    Most American TV shows run longer than they should EVEN with an end date. They milk them to the last drop and call it a “final season” to pick up some buzz and ratings. Did I mention that an end date seven (Desperate Housewives) four (Breaking Bad) or even three (LOST) into a show is already too late. I think they should have a plan from the get go. You could see how the first three (Lost), two (Grey’s Anatomy, and many others) and one (99% of serialized dramas) season are VERY ccreafully planned but then, they just fall flat. I dear say not a single serilized Amercian show succeded in reaching a conclusion.

    • Dave

      The Shield. Possibly the best finale I’ve ever seen.

  • Shannon S

    The last season of The Wire was the one that really shocked me. People talk about Lost as if it completely went off the rails during their last season…but, to me, it wasn’t nearly as bad as The Wire. ***SPOILER ALERT*** I mean, seriously…a fake serial killer? And the guy at the newspaper who plagiarized everything GETS A PULITZER PRIZE!!! After the first five seasons I was convinced The Wire was the best show ever, but I have to agree with this blogger that even the best shows struggle at the end…whether they know the end is coming or not.

    • tg

      I think you’re confused. The Wire only had 4 seasons, only 2 of which were every good (1 & 3).

      • tg

        oops I mean very good. Or good at all.

      • Jim

        According to IMDB…5 seasons for The Wire. tg, you must be the confused here.

      • tg

        Must be. I only remember 4. Oops.

  • Dicazi

    Some shows have a beginning, middle and end. Like Lost and like X-Files and Heroes should have had. Some shows can go on and on, Like Gunsmoke and Law and Order.

  • Prof

    Now on to the LOST case: I had gotten into the show between seasons 3 and 4. Was facsinated how incredibely good it was. It was, without a doubt, the best show I had ever seen. In fact, it was porbably the most exciting, thrilling, and overall best and most enjoyable thing I’d experienced in my life. Was really excited at the announcment of an end date and how it won’t face the unfortunate fate of abrupt cancellation. It was unlike any other show. It was “THE” show with “THE” plan. Then the island disappeared. I thought I’d let it slip. Then came season 5 and Time-Travel. All my dreams were crushed. Stuck with till the end but it was clear the story had gone way off-course. Shame.

    So yeah, any creator of an American serialized drama need to be fully prepared that theur show might very go on to 5-7 seasons and they need to stick with their plan. Less than that their show would eventually be considered a failure so why bother.

    • Dave

      What was it about the Island disappearing and the time traveling that disappointed you so much? I’m not in any way criticizing you for thinking so, I’m just curious to hear your opinions about it. I actually really liked the time traveling.

      • Prof

        Call me crazy, but it moved the show from “too realistic and scary” to simply “shark jump sci-fi unreal”. And,. even thought I cared for much more than leaving the island, for the last two seasons it was not about leaving the island NOR any of the other “much more than that” stuff. All the important elements of narrative from the first 3-4 seasons were disregarded and replaced with stuff I didn’t care about. I didn’t know what was I supposed to care about during seasons 5-6.

      • Dave

        I see where you’re coming from. Makes sense. I actually became really intrigued when the show turned into the whole “it’s not just about getting off the Island.” I thought it added a fun new dynamic that was really unexpected. Were you still at all invested in the characters during the last couple seasons? They were always what tied me to the show more than anything, even when the show went down some roads that I didn’t care as much for.
        And I won’t call you crazy since you’re able to state your opinion without insulting anyone who disagrees with you (unlike a lot of people who frequent these comment boards lol).

      • Prof

        Island disappearance was just too unreal. It screamed Shark Jump to me, yet I was still willing to forgive it. Time Travel was it. I hate TT. Lost was already unique in too many ways. So for to really on one of the most cliched, and contrived plot devices ever was a HUGE let down. Can’t belive Lost will forever be rememberd as a TT series or that TT was one if the “significant” parts of the show. It was only a device used in a single season. The show had already too many unique properties in the first few seasons. So yeah, Lost is one of the most unique, original, creative shows to ever be made — until you mention TT. That’s one thing. The other is that I feel it hurt the story and the narrative. It screwed the story and narrative.

      • Prof

        Agree with your first 2.5 lines. But no, I wasn’t actually able to care for the characters during the last couple seasons half as much as I did durng the first few. That’s what I meant but “much more”. From the very begning it felt the show had a lot to say than escaping in island. There was island, metholigy, and characters But in season 4 they used FF. I was, like, ok. let’s see where this is going. Unfortunately durng s5-6 they completely dropped tha ball the characters, IMO. (which is why it bugs me when someone says the finale was “about the character” – I didn’t hate the finale as much as other but to call it a “well-done character conclusion” is a flat-out lie. They didn’t do justice to a single character – Island TL or Sideways. The flashback, flashforwards, AND island adventures eventually went no where. I would’ve loved a better conclusion for the island TL as well as a conclusion of any kind to the FBs and FFs.

      • Dave

        You think they didn’t do justice to a single character? Hmm, I guess I’ll have to disagree with that. I was very satisfied in the endings for Claire (leaving the Island and presumably being able to be a mother to Aaron), Jin and Sun (even though they left behind their daughter to die together, it was still in my opinion one of the most emotional and beautifully tragic deaths the show has ever done), and Jack, Hurley, and Ben.

    • StillLOST

      Damon Lindelof: “Everytime this show takes a risk and declares itself more overtly, there are going to be people who say, ‘I wasn’t watching a show about time travel. I don’t like that show. I don’t want to watch this anymore.’ But we have to tell the story that we’re committed to. We can’t really compromise that.”

      “I think that the show has probably jumped the shark at least a dozen times now.”

  • Crystal

    End dates are almost always a good idea. There are certain series that should only be one or two seasons anyway. US tv is very greedy in this regard.

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