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.