The ‘Sopranos’ And ‘Breaking Bad’ Movies Signal The End Of TV’s Golden Age

Cultural Critic
02.26.19

AMC/HBO

 

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?

So I don’t sound like a total killjoy, I will admit to being a fan of Better Call Saul, the first Breaking Bad spin-off featuring Bob Odenkirk as unscrupulous sometime lawyer Jimmy McGill, the man who will eventually become Walter White’s sleazy attorney, Saul Goodman. But Better Call Saul swiftly established itself as a markedly different show than Breaking Bad, fixated more on the minutia of Jimmy’s psyche and the slow-boiling tension of watching fate take its course, rather than the bombastic, action-oriented storytelling of its predecessor. While this has hurt Saul in some respects — it’s retained only a fraction of Breaking Bad‘s peak audience — it’s also made the show immune to charges of simply “playing the hits.”

But bringing back the most hallowed programs of the ’00s for another curtain call seems different. It feels like the end of something, specifically the so-called Golden Age of Television, an era christened by overexcited critics in the ’00s during that post-Sopranos run of brilliant shows that also included The Wire, Lost, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones.

Last month, upon the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos’ debut, I confessed that I felt nostalgic for a time when shows were “afforded the space to be important, to ‘hang out’ in my consciousness and make a lasting impression, without so much pressure to constantly move on to the next thing.” This “golden age” was as much about how TV was structured as it was the shows themselves. At the time, the post-Sopranos era felt like a break from what TV used to be in the 20th century, an explosion of the medium that resulted in richer, more novelistic storytelling. But in retrospect, that era seems more connected to the old days than it appeared to be at the time. Even if TV was “better” than it used to be, it was still experienced largely via over-the-air networks by an audience gathered in front of their sets at the same day and time every week, over the course of several months, which allowed for a certain kind of critical mass to be achieved.

Actually, Breaking Bad was a bridge to the way we watch television now, during the all-things-at-once post-Golden Age era, as it became a cultural phenomenon once viewers could binge the AMC series on Netflix. The low-rated Lifetime series You just had a similar trajectory, launching into the stratosphere once it appeared on the streaming platform.

In order to have a reunion, you must actually leave for a little while. But streaming means never having to say goodbye. It also means never missing anything enough to even notice that it’s gone. Recently, while watching Netflix’s Sex Education, it occurred to me that all buzzy TV shows are now like this — you read about it constantly for a week, you watch it in a few days, and then you move on to the next thing the following week. The show itself was also typical: smart but glib, clever but not actually funny, extremely well-curated but devoid of anything truly unique, “good” but not the kind of great that can push idle small talk into an obsessive three-hour bull session. When that’s the norm, I totally understand the allure of the already established and beloved, even if it’s a little less golden now.

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