End Of The Golden Age? 12 Shows Hoping To Be The Next 'Breaking Bad'

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
October 1, 2013 1:31 PM
20 Comments
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Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. The one who knocks knocks no more. We won't give away what went down in Sunday's series finale of "Breaking Bad," partly because we don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't yet seen it and partly because we wrote this before it aired, but we know that we're not spoiling anything to say that there's no more of Vince Gilligan's praised-to-the-skies cult hit coming down the pipeline. The show's two-part fifth season has long been planned to be the last, and Walter White's story is well and truly all wrapped up.

And the end of the show comes at a crucial point for television fans. For the last decade or so, we've been living in something of a golden age for TV drama, kicked off by “The Sopranos” (and, if you go further back, “Homicide: Life On The Streets” and “Oz”), and continued by the likes of “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Terriers” and, if we broaden the definition away from that very particular brand of cable drama, the likes of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “24,” “The West Wing” and many, many others.

In that time, cable drama has become bigger than ever. “The Walking Dead” and “Game Of Thrones” now draw bigger audiences than almost any scripted network series, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Add to that that more and more outlets are commissioning series, from HBO’s long-time competitors like Showtime and FX, to networks not known for that kind of programming, like The History Channel, to online upstarts like Netflix and Amazon. But one could argue that we’re starting to creep toward the end—or at least the beginning of the end—of the golden age. Almost every one of the shows in our second paragraph have ended, with “True Blood” wrapping up next year and “Mad Men” following the year after (with an extra year’s reprieve after AMC decided to artificially split the critical darling’s seventh and final season in two, following the example set by “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad”).

It isn’t that great shows haven’t stepped up in their place. “Game Of Thrones,” “Homeland,” “Rectify,” “The Americans,” “The Bridge,” “House Of Cards” and “Orange Is The New Black” are among the quality offerings that have sprung up in the last couple of years, while only a few nights ago, Showtime debuted the extremely promising “Masters Of Sex.” For all their strengths, however, none quite feel (yet) like the kind of epoch-defining show that they’re replacing. “The Wire," “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” all hit their stride in later seasons, but they all also felt like something special and new right out of the gate, and not all of the examples above can say the same (we’d argue that “Game Of Thrones” and “OITNB” come closest). 

To borrow a premise from “Deadwood,” cable drama was, in its early years, a Wild West, where the rules were there for the breaking. But law and order has come to town, and the networks are increasingly operating as conventional businesses. AMC had barely entered the scripted world before they were firing key creatives, cutting back budgets and forcing protracted negotiations with showrunners. If networks aren’t chasing their existing successes—“The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game Of Thrones” all have spin-offs in various stage of development—they’re pursuing a certain kind of formula. The kind of show detailed recently by Brett Martin in his excellent book “Difficult Men,” which we’d term as something like the Middle-Aged White Male Anti-Hero Drama (“The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad”), has become a genre copied as often as the comic book movie is by Hollywood studios. As promising as series like “Hell On Wheels,” “Ray Donovan” and “Low Winter Sun” were on paper, with their movie star leads and dark plotting, they felt like pale shadows of their predecessors in the execution. Even something like “Boardwalk Empire” has A-list names behind the scenes, is strongly written, and has one of the best casts you could ever ask for, but somehow fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts. .

Obviously, there was a kind of alchemy in the works when something like “Breaking Bad” came along—asking why more shows aren’t as good as it is a bit like asking why most movies aren’t as good as “The Godfather.” But there are definitely lessons that could be learned from the successes, and from the failures. Don’t just try to follow the troubled-man-with-tough-job-that-might-involve-crime archetype. Dig into different worlds. Remember that two of the most talked-about TV series of the last year are “Scandal” and “Orange Is The New Black,” which prominently feature not only just women, but women who aren’t white.

Perhaps most importantly, remember that “Breaking Bad” was rejected from almost every network out there. Remember that it was a crime drama about a high-school teacher with terminal cancer who starts cooking crystal meth, written by a guy who’d worked on “The X-Files,” and starring the dad from “Malcolm In The Middle.” The chances are that the next “Breaking Bad” won’t come from Martin Scorsese, or star a slumming-it movie star, or be a spin-off of a pre-existing series. The next “Breaking Bad” will take you surprise, so long as the networks continue to do their job.

With that in mind, we didn’t want to leave things on a pessimistic note because there’s lots of promising drama on the way from the cable channels, in a wide range of genres. So we’ve picked out twelve potential shows that should debut in the next year that might help to fill your Heisenberg-shaped void. Some are from big-name writers and directors, some feature big-name actors, some are based on pre-existing material. We decided to exclude “Breaking Bad” spin-off “Better Call Saul” to make way for something less familiar, and we excluded “Masters Of Sex,” as it’s already started airing. But even with that in mind, we hope that somewhere among them will be a show that can live alongside “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and the rest. Take a look at our picks, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments.

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20 Comments

  • Malachi | February 10, 2014 7:46 PMReply

    I definitely want to start watching True Detective. It's been having amazing reviews, like Breaking Bad reviews, not comparing it to Breaking Bad, just saying. But I don't have HBO, so maybe I may spend my money on it, and buy it on iTunes. I don't usually take chances like that and buy things that I haven't seen already, but I'm gonna buy episode one and see if I like it.

  • Anton | February 9, 2014 5:36 AMReply

    You are talking nonsense boardwalk empire has been the best show on tv for years and that included breaking bad

    I watched both but breakin bad took more than a season to get into it and i didnt know why i went back to watching it during season 2 glad i did it was amazing but as for boardwalk empire every season have been brilliant and although its hard to compare both boardwalk empire runs away with it

  • Malachi | February 10, 2014 7:42 PM

    Wow, you're so wrong. EVERY season of Breaking Bad is phenomenal. Boardwalk Empire is mediocre.

  • James | October 22, 2013 10:02 AMReply

    I could watch Breaking Bad to death.

  • JIM | October 11, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Couldn't be more wrong about Boardwalk Empire.

  • ARR | October 5, 2013 5:48 PMReply

    What about "The Man in the High Castle" ? And didn't AMC option Dan Simmons AMAZING horror/period piece "The Terror"?

  • Chris | October 4, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    What about Wayward Pines?

  • Crowhead | October 4, 2013 6:52 AMReply

    No mention of Justified

  • stevenstevo | October 4, 2013 1:12 AMReply

    Great article, definitely a subject I think about a lot. I think I must be a cynic because I think we are doomed. We got lucky with The Wire and Breaking Bad and a few others, and there will simply never be another show as good as those. Even the same networks and showrunners will not be able to replicate their past successes.

    Actually, just typing that makes me realize it is ridiculous.

    One other thing I wonder about is perhaps one (and not the only one) formula for creating a successful show is the same formula that has proven effective for all of eternity: spend lots of money producing the good/service (or show, film, etc.). Case in point: House of Cards, the first season of which I believe cost north of $100 million to produce. Fortunately, on the flipside, advances in technology will only continue to lower the cost of production in the film, tv, and music industries, hopefully ultimately removing the gap between those that fund art and those that create it.

  • Nick | October 2, 2013 9:24 AMReply

    Other than Fargo, Mob City, and True Detective, do any of these series have tentative premiere dates?

  • bill | October 2, 2013 3:49 AMReply

    The winners here will be...

    The HBO rock drama. Lead is a star in the making. Touches on punk and hip hop roots with HBO's debaucherous freedom. Rock music's so dead it's ripe material just like mobster stories were circa Sopranos.

    Mike Judge's Silicon Valley. Mike Judge uncensored.

    Line of Sight. Huge appetite for a heady conspiracy series. Post 9/11 X-Files. AMC's secret weapon.

  • bohmer | October 1, 2013 9:07 PMReply

    What Game of Thrones spin-off?

  • Tjls | October 1, 2013 8:05 PMReply

    Boardwalk Empire has becoming more impressive since its debut back in 2010.
    it should be mentioned because of the star studded talented cast and complicated drama,which were intriguing and compelling.
    not forge to mention,FX latest drama "The Bridge" also had much potential regarding the provoking premise and interesting character.
    its deeply emotion and sometimes provoking,yet it was very underrated judging by the ratings.regardless any of that factors,it also surprisingly stylish and atmospheric.
    the cinematography was brilliantly executed with many wide shot conveying the mexico border in which given a sense of realism and absorbing background.
    Showtime Homeland was another example of promosing "great tv series" along with "Downtown Abbey".those tv series should be mentioned.

  • CB | October 1, 2013 6:45 PMReply

    Nicolas Winding Refn's Barberella show is also very, very promising.

  • Sagi | October 1, 2013 5:23 PMReply

    Boardwalk empire is the best TV show airing now that breaking bad has end. I don't understand why you are not giving it the credit it deserve.

  • Jason | October 1, 2013 3:22 PMReply

    One potential series I'm really looking forward to is CRASH AND BURN on FX: "It is written by Jeffrey Lieber (NECESSARY ROUGHNESS) and loosely inspired by the non-fiction book THE FULL BURN by Kevin Conley. CRASH AND BURN tells the story of Doc Dixon, a man trying to survive as a Stuntman during the anything goes world of pre-computer-generation, post Vietnam San Fernando Valley, California. He’s trying to save his family, hold together his union, and live to see 50… all with the understanding that if his work doesn’t kill him… the weekends probably will."

    Speaking of FX, zero mention of THE AMERICANS?

  • BEF | October 1, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    Fargo is in North Dakota. But I see why you'd be confused, what with the daytrips to the big Twin Cities since it's so close to the Minnesota border, don'tchaknow?

  • swell | October 1, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    Are you kidding with that headline? You spoil it in a headline in large print just one story below this one...

  • TL | October 1, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    I would disagree about BOARDWALK EMPIRE - the show really came into its own last season in terms of character and sorytelling, including Bobby Canavale's amazing turn. I would also mention GIRLS' brave look at sexuality, mental issues and STDs - a new and relevant voice in televsion.

    Let's hope we get more stories about Difficult Women for a change - and more Difficult Characters of Color or Difficult LGBT Characters.

  • Dick whitman | October 1, 2013 1:52 PMReply

    I've got a feeling that most of the new 'antihero' shows are going to fail. We've seen Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walt White and Don Draper. Even Dexter Morgan had his moments.
    If I was a showrunner, I'd probably try something different. How about a heroic protagonist vs. ruthless villain for a change?

    If you do another "antihero family man" -show, you'll eventually be compared to Sopranos, Shield, Mad Men or Breaking Bad and it's going to be hard to stand out in that company.

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