‘Breaking Bad’: 7 Lessons Showbiz Can Learn From the Gamechanging Series

No Half Measures: Creating the Final

AMC's patience with the meth kingpin drama can serve as a blueprint for other networks

With “Breaking Bad’s” final episode set to air Sunday, consumers and the industry alike are busily discussing the show’s impact on television.  The AMC drama has overcome numerous hurdles during its five year run on the net, whether it be production derailment due to the writers’ strike, or more-than-soft ratings during its debut.

Nevertheless, “Breaking Bad” now ranks among the great dramas of television, surrounded by the likes of “The Sopranos,” “NYPD Blue” and “The Wire.” Showbiz could learn a few lessons from the series, especially given its prominence in the digital space. Here are seven:

1. Patience is more than just a virtue

“Breaking Bad” wasn’t always a pop culture phenomenon that broke ratings records for AMC. In fact, the first four seasons of the Vince Gilligan drama — running from 2008 to 2011 — rarely cracked 2 million live viewers. Buoyed by digital syndication, “Breaking Bad’s” word-of-mouth buzz snowballed in 2012 as auds discovered the Bryan Cranston-starrer on Netflix, caught up on the series and began tuning to the Sunday night telecasts. These bandwagon fans have in turn helped the show break the 6.6 million viewer mark, with record highs for the show expected Sunday. “Breaking Bad’s” growth is exponential, as the show boasts four times the viewership it did two years ago. Other net execs, who may be trigger-happy when it comes to cancelling low-rated yet high-quality programs, would be well-served offering their young series not only patience, but faith — a modest performer one season could become your breakout hit the next.

2. Netflix is your friend, not your enemy

Dovetailing off the “patience” lesson, “Breaking Bad” is the first resounding success of a digital syndication model, and one that helped bring the phrase “binge-viewing” into households across America. While TV networks have long treated the streaming service as a competitor for viewers, AMC witnessed a different result when it licensed previous seasons of “Breaking Bad” to Netflix: Subscribers were able to discover or catch up on the series, and encourage friends and fellow subs to do the same. The numbers at times were staggering: Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos disclosed that when Netflix released the 13-episode fourth season of “Breaking Bad” the day before the season five premiere, 50,000 subscribers binge-viewed all 13 episodes in one day. When Gilligan took home the best drama series Emmy this year, he praised Netflix for its role in keeping the series afloat for all of these years and building its on-air viewership.

3. Edge does not necessitate gore

With the recent roll out of Fox’s “The Following” and NBC’s “Hannibal,” networks have brought edgy, bloody programming to small screens across America as they try to compete with the likes of zombie drama “The Walking Dead” and the graphic brutality on “Sons of Anarchy.” However, “Breaking Bad” is proof that an edgy show does not require gore to drive home uncomfortable emotion. While “Breaking Bad” does not shy away when it comes to violence — death, after all, abounds — the graphic nature of the show is in no ways gratuitous, and at times even restrained. During the “Ozymandias” episode, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was dragged away by a neo-Nazi gang that had plans to force information out of him. The actual interrogation of Pinkman, however, was not shown. Instead, viewers witness the aftermath — an exhausted, bloodied Pinkman sitting in a pit, his face swollen with lacerations. The thought of “what could have happened” to Pinkman in the end was far more emotionally gripping than a gory depiction of the torture session, as auds minds’ were allowed to wander into their own versions of hell.

4. Think beyond the pilot

Both Gilligan and Cranston will tell you that the pilot script for “Breaking Bad” could never alone hint at the future of Walter White. While the pilot followed a meek, financially strapped chemistry teacher and family man diagnosed with cancer, Gilligan’s vision for “Breaking Bad” defied the dozens of pages of the show’s first sample of writing — he wanted to create a character that morphed into someone completely different over the arc of the series, something that would take hundreds upon hundreds of pages to accomplish. This vision beyond the pilot script brings ambition to a project that the typical pilot strategy does not accommodate, where writers are forced to cram character traits and trajectories into a single script for networks to mull over. Though “Breaking Bad” eventually created one of the most iconic antiheroes in TV history, the pilot script hinted at none of this. In the same vein as that old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover,” perhaps it’s time to stop judging the potential of a show by the pilot script alone.

5. Be flexible with a character’s trajectory

Famously, Gilligan did not plan for Jesse to survive season one. Gilligan also said that he imagined Hank serving a “limited function” until actor Dean Norris “elevated” the character. Saul (Bob Odenkirk) didn’t even arrive until season two, yet he spawned a spinoff series. Thanks to solid casting and nimble writing, the trio grew to be fan faves. Similarly, Nicholas Brody on Showtime’s “Homeland” and Peter Russo on “House of Cards” had far more limited trajectories initially planned for them. Flexibility with a character’s future, paired with impeccable casting, can transform a role from recurring to essential. It also didn’t hurt that in Walter White, “Breaking Bad” gave us a lead character we had never seen before.

6. A popular show does not beget a strong lead-in

Unfortunately for “Low Winter Sun,” having a ratings giant precede a show does not promise audience rollover. The Detroit-set frosh series is seeing a drop off of over 4 million viewers per seg in the 10 p.m. timeslot compared to “Breaking Bad,” and its live viewership declined as “Breaking Bad” — its 9 p.m. lead-in — grew. There are several potential reasons for this, including “Low Winter Sun’s” tonal issues, but one idea that won’t seem to fade is that viewers aren’t ready to watch much of anything after the emotionally draining episodes of “Breaking Bad’s” final season. Sometimes, just one heartache is all a viewer can tolerate in primetime. (Of course, one could argue that “Low Winter Sun” is a hit in waiting, the same way “Breaking Bad” was, but that might be optimistic.)

7. With a great show, less is not more — more is more.

Though some might say AMC is milking “Breaking Bad” for all it’s worth, the split-finale strategy for the series has not only extended the gratification for diehard fans, but also allowed new ones to join the party and spike live ratings during its final segs. AMC has also extended the final episodes of “Breaking Bad” to 75 minutes, and — let’s be honest — no one is complaining. When it comes to a truly compelling show, more is definitely more, as auds eagerly lap up every scene. There is no shame in AMC’s milking game, and fans are benefiting from it greatly — a win-win for all involved. AMC seems to have already taken this lesson to heart by employing the same strategy for the final episodes of “Mad Men” in 2014 and 2015.

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  1. JohnsonQuiblyThe2nd says:

    4. Think beyond the pilot –

    I have to admit… after watching the pilot some year or so ago I wasn’t too interested in getting involved in this series. I’d just “binge viewed” Sons of Anarchy and, while I like the first season or two, it got really stupid – kinda like Dexter after season 1 so I was hesitant..

    But… then all I kept hearing about, over the last year, was how great a series Breaking Bad was… interviews with Bryan Cranston on NPR, other sources, friends, bartenders… So I decided to watch some more. Season 1? ok… 2? I’m getting interested… 3? better… ok… then they finally kill Gustavo Fring so anything beyond that is just extending the series and it’s gonna suck… NOT… They move past Fring an on to the end of Heisenberg killing just about everyone involved along the way.

    So… yeah.. this model is GREAT and ties perfectly with being able to binge view through the Internet. I really want to see more original work like this – it makes viewing worthwhile again.

    I might actually even pay for a Netflix account if this is what I can expect in the future.. how’s THAT for setting the bar? ;)

  2. Sareeta says:

    I wish AMC would take the HBO approach and renew all its series for a 2nd season regardless of the ratings. I imagine a show like Rubicon could have really benefited from a 2nd chance to keep the things that worked (the characters) and scrap what wasn’t working (pacing issues). Many shows don’t find their footing until they’ve had a chance to react to the audience response to the first season.

    Anyway, I just hope AMC can come up with something to fill the gaping hole Breaking Bad and Mad Men are going to be leaving, I like The Walking Dead, but it is no where near the level of smart that BB and MM are.

    • Sarah McGill says:

      Congrats to Gilligan.

      At some point Hollywood needs some serious fresh blood. That doesn’t mean dump everyone over 30 yrs. But, to me, it’s the same shows recycled with the same people used over and over. Yes, experience is wonderful, but Hollywood television is in a serious rut. Just plain boring.
      On top of that, it’s really not worth your time to sitdown and watch a show when 90% of them are cancelled after 6 weeks or 1 season, what’s that??
      If you believed in the show, why not give it a chance? Then after cancellation, they just mix and match new writers and actors again and start all over. Seems like such a waste of money.

      A real lack of scripted shows, lack of sitcom-3 cams—something that gets an audience, the buzz with a live audience can’t be beat. There’s a real lack of rerun material, especially with regards to sitcom, where the money is in syndication. Yes, Friends is over 10 years old now.

  3. Dan says:

    What’s with people complaining about the language of the article? If you don’t want to read the language of an industry, don’t read an industry trade. There are plenty of other publications out there for you.

  4. Manuel says:

    Honestly, what company is going to be willing to spend $170 million (or whatever the 62 episodes ended up costing) and almost 6 years in the hope that a show will become an eventual hit? Breaking Bad is lucky that it came out as basically the second show AMC did, which afforded it a legacy status that other shows won’t get. I love the show but let’s not forget how much pop culture phenomena has come and gone in the time since the night Walt first got diagnosed.

  5. A someone who has worked in “the biz” (the drug biz, not the movie biz), I can tell you much of how the game is portrayed in the series is stunningly accurate. The reality of the show allowed me to give it a chance, to know the characters and get invested in the plot. If the scenery had been completely unrealistic, or cliché (like “Traffic”), I would have tuned out and not given it a chance.

  6. I think the main lesson is, give a series a chance to grow. I, as a viewer, am getting tired of just settling into a new series, waiting for it to take on some substance (meat on the bones) and poof. The show is either cancelled, moved to another time (worse another day of the week) etc. All the best shows, was like that, weak in it’s beginnings and then snowballing into TV history as a good d a r n show. Also, there is a very strong lesson here concerning Netflix. It can be a plus for TV networks and not a competitor, was a very good point.

  7. Tevii says:

    “1. Patience is more than just a virtue” this lessened has already been learned a few times…. One major time was THe X-Files which had low ratings the first season, only to explode the second and third….(also a series with episodes written by Vince Gillgan)
    Either way execs won’t learn from this, especially network execs. They want faster turn around

  8. Mike Agresta says:

    Stop referring to the viewers as auds, after all if it wasn’t for us nobody in this industry would have a job.
    So a little respect. You might think that since you are writer for Variety you can belittle us by taking down with some insider slang but your wrong.

  9. Sally says:

    I hope Rena Moretti doesn’t bother to write comments after the season finale. We get that you don’t care for the series, that you think it’s all a PR scam, and that the sharp rise of viewers is only due to media hype. While PR and hype inevitably occur, it takes nothing away from BrBa’s quality and the exciting ride to the finale. No show is for everyone, but millions love this one, and I plan (in spite of cynisicm I, too, feel for our current film/media industry) to thoroughly enjoy it tomorrow!!

  10. will towne says:

    Ive been watching the show weekly since season 1, episode 3 or 4 and I’m not shocked that its getting so much attention now. Its an amazing accomplishment how fast this show came into greatness and am very glad its ending on a very high note

  11. TV fan says:

    I would like to add an obvious omission from this list: 8. Have a good team of executives developing the show… Hollywood could CERTAINLY learn from that. The genius behind AMC was the people who worked there. They are all gone now, replaced by mediocre ad-sales men.

  12. Gringo Bush Pilot says:

    For me,. an American that went to grade school before there was a television, I’ve seen or known of just about every TV show ever produced. Since I’ve lived overseas for years I’ve also followed British and French productions. In the simplest terms; Breaking Bad is just the best TV drama ever made – no contest.
    The broad scope of this show, and the multi-layered characters portrayed is stunning. It is fascinating to note that almost every personage in the story has a counterpart in real life – people that we have all met – bundled together in one stupendous collage of story telling. It well be a long time before this series is surpassed.
    The best TV show EVER…

  13. HATEME says:

    @rena moretti
    please…shut up, you know nothing. take a midol and cry yourself to sleep for the breaking bad finale. the show may not have had great ratings in the beginning, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great. you could fill a vault with the scripts of great shows that never had high ratings. unlike you, i prefer to watch original storytelling and not americas got talent or whatever crap you watch that gets “high ratings”

  14. Rena Moretti says:

    Only one lesson: Make a Pseudo-Edgy show, then spend a lot of your production budget on PR. This will generate adoring press (especially if you have awful ratings like Breaking Bad) and it won’t matter that audiences are staying away in droves.

    It’s a very sad lesson, but the press will never talk about that!

    • Marcelo says:

      You seem like a very sad person, Rena… Cheer up! Enjoy the show, as we do, or just watch something else, please. We get your point, ok? Stop writing.

  15. David says:

    Great point about Low Winter Sun. It’s just too much to descend into darkness again after Breaking bad. Can’t AMC pick up a drama that is a bit lighter in tone, or are they all going to be obsessed with killing and death? (let’s face it, Mad Men is obsessed with death too)

    • Rena Moretti says:

      That’s because the idea is to please the press which loves Pseudo-Dark shows as they think it makes them cool if they write positive articles about them.

      In the meantime, audiences are left with shows they don’t like and reality TV gains ground.

  16. Tony T says:

    Excellent points. Not to mention the fresh cinematography, great writing concepts, and characters like the cousins and Gus.

    • Rena Moretti says:

      What was “fresh” about the cinematography? For my money, I only say the usual, boring fake-edgy look that all those fake-edgy shows share.

      I’m serious. I love good cinematography and there’s less and less of it (in part because of all the shows shot on video) and I’d flock to something that’s actually well shot (like, say, the first four seasons of CSI).

      • Suzaku says:

        You must be kidding. I’m not even going to go into specific explanations of the iconic shots its pioneered, or its perculiar use of timelapse and technocrane, or the fact that it’s one of the last shows still using 35 mm film.

        That scene alone is enough for the show to go down in television history.

        Oh, and in case you weren’t aware, BrBa’s cinematographer previously won an Emmy for his work on CSI.

  17. JBC says:

    Watched the first 4 seasons on Netflix. Watched the first 8 eps of BB on On Demand, and now the last 8 episodes of S5 Live.. So glad I found this show.. Congratulations Breaking Bad. Job well done. Best I have seen in Television. Good article AJ Marechal, you really hit it about the ending of each episode being so emotionally draining that you can’t invest in anything else afterwards, i.e. new show Low Winter Sun.. All I want after the episode is too think about the ep or talk about it with other fans..

  18. leigha says:

    Well said. I think you tapped the nail on the BB die hard head.

  19. @Gillianfx says:

    Reblogged this on Plaintalkbadmanners and commented:
    50,000 subscribers binge-viewed all 13 episodes in one day. (I was one of them).

    • Rena Moretti says:

      Amazing how all flops somehow come up with all sorts of unverifiable “statistics”…

      Netflix loves to be in a position (like the movie studios) where they can make up their own numbers.

      Also, everyone please stop using the verb “binge” to refer to watching TV. It’s just disgusting.

  20. The Doctor says:

    it’s wonderful to see fresh,intelligent thinking, instead of having writers that make characters into questions, and have just awful degrees of crap. congrats AJ, perfect article for an amazing series. To Gillian and Co, I love you guys, you’ll always be my bitches, bitch! ^^

  21. James H. says:

    Very astute article, AJ. Who would have thought (other than Vince Gilligan and Netflix) that smartening-up instead of dumbing-down would pay such dividends for AMC and its audience? Short memories outnumber the long ones in the industry, but the well-earned success of Breaking Bad could be an evolutionary factor for the future of really good television. To everyone associated with Breaking Bad for their remarkable achievements, a heartfelt “Congratulations . . . bitches.”

    • Rena Moretti says:

      You do realize Breaking Bad was a flop for all of its run except the one week in its last season where it spent millions in an unprecedented PR campaign and rose all the way to mediocre ratings?

      The idolatry of this show based only on newspaper articles is just ridiculous.

      I mean, if you liked it, it’s great, but don’t pretend we all did. I don’t pretend the world loved Better Off Ted (though I did!)

      • sassysnaggletooth says:

        Well, if you didn’t like it, there’s a real good chance you didn’t watch it all the way through. And if you did, what kind of knucklehead watches 60 episodes of a show they don’t like?

      • You sound like a bitter executive who passed on this show and hasn’t stepped into the 21st century. You probably passed on House of Cards and laughed at Netflix. If you had a facebook you would see everyone and their grandmother loves this show. It’s simply the best TV drama ever according to many people. You sound like a suit who only cares about $$$.

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