Growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I watched way too much television, regardless of whether it was good or bad. This is what we did in the pre-internet world — options were limited, so you consumed whatever was on the menu.
By the time I was a teenager, I already had a well-rounded familiarity with TV history from the previous 30 years, the kind of knowledge that is worthless except in the one career field that I eventually pursued. I knew mediocre TV so well that I could appreciate it when one of my favorite contemporary shows, The Simpsons, frequently skewered the corniest and most old-fashioned conventions of the medium on a deeper level. For instance, in season four there was “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” in which Springfield’s top kiddie TV star Krusty The Clown is feted with a comeback special co-starring luminaries such as Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I loved “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” I’m sure, because hours upon hours of syndicated television had educated me about the history of TV reunions. I had seen The Brady Girls Get Married, I had viewed the Return of the Beverly Hillbillies, and I had marveled at The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. And I was already old enough to witness some of the shows from my early childhood, like ALF and Growing Pains, return in the form of TV movies, though by the ’90s cooler and more progressive shows like The Simpsons introduced a new level of self-awareness about these nostalgia cash-ins. (I had also learned to scoff at TV reunions.) Later, during the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a healthy dose of post-modern self-effacement made reuniting the cast of Seinfeld compatible with also satirizing the idea of reuniting the cast of Seinfeld.
The common thread with reunion specials is an older generation reviving a familiar favorite that was once at the center of culture, and awkwardly inserting it into an unforgiving modern context that emphasizes, rather than eases, the passage of time. The cast members look older, the sets dustier, the wardrobes anachronistic. There is no surer sign that an era has passed than the desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to bring it back to life.
Perhaps it’s this ingrained aversion to reunions that has caused my ambivalence over two of my favorite shows ever, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, returning in the form of one-off movies. (Another TV show that I like but have not yet finished, Deadwood, also has a film in the works.) Neither the Sopranos or Breaking Bad projects are straight-up reunion projects — the Sopranos movie, titled The Many Saints of Newark, is a prequel set in the 1960s and starring Jon Bernthal and Vera Farmiga, while the Breaking Bad movie appears to be a sequel to the original series that continues the story of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). The Deadwood film, meanwhile, is a full-on reunion that will presumably wrap up the series in proper fashion.
Like any good fan, I will probably watch these movies and enjoy them well enough. But the specter of pointlessness looms, especially for The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, both of whom are unique among prestige TV dramas in that they put stuck the landing in their finales. Each show ended perfectly for what they were — The Sopranos embraced ambiguity by cutting to black, and Breaking Bad tracked Walter White to his inevitable denouement while Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” acted as Greek chorus. In both instances, I was satisfied. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone could come to the end of either series and still be hungry for seconds.
In the case of Breaking Bad, allowing Jesse to flee into the desert night seemed less like a loose end than a tantalizing grace note for the most tortured character in Walter White’s orbit. I didn’t need to know where Jesse ended up. The value in not knowing was the hope that he would somehow be okay. But now, I know Jesse has another two hours of torment ahead of him. Thank you?