As AMC's superlative-burdened Breaking Bad inches toward its September 29 finale—and honestly, would it kill series creator Vince Gilligan to include even one fast-paced scene to vary the endgame?—viewers are bidding adieu to more than just one show. With only Mad Men's valedictory season still ahead, the whole cycle of morally murky cable dramas that transformed TV from cultural fast food to gourmet fare for the discerning many is winding down as well. Whatever comes next—more Game of Thrones wannabes? Black Is The New Orange Is The New Black ?—odds are we'll never gaze on such an untrammeled eruption of self-conscious artistry again.
I sometimes think that's just as well. Everybody's discovery that TV can be, y'know, art has had its downsides, from the reification of status-conscious boutique audiences Balkanizing the world's most democratic medium to the devaluation of every series predating The Sopranos. I don't envy any TV scholar trying to inform today's young people that Paul Henning—who thought up The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, among others—was a genius more demotic than Sopranos creator David Chase. He or she will face worse derision by claiming that the homey surrealism of '60s sitcoms like Bewitched or My Favorite Martian was avant-gardism for the masses in ways nouveau TV can't match. The key phrase here is "for the masses," not upscale cable's target audience.
In any case, the dark doors Chase pried open 15 years ago are off their hinges for good. Platoons of Cossacks have stormed through them on their way to looting every no-longer-verboten bauble in sight. Twisted antiheroes with anger-management issues and tainted private lives, caught in sinkholes of corruption as they pine for transcendence, have become fixtures in the TV landscape the way private eyes with raffish senses of humor used to be. As a result, they no longer seem to have a lot that's fresh to tell us about the human condition—and an impression of profundity, never a priority for shows about private eyes with raffish senses of humor, was this genre's calling card from the get-go.
If you ask me, the only sensible upgrade would be for Walter White, the late Tony Soprano, Don Draper, et. al. to join forces, Avengers-style, for one final showdown with the 21st century. Hasn't it been their secret antagonist all along? However genuinely mold-breaking these series were—for which we're, yadda yadda, duly grateful—their well-concealed retrograde streak has always been how tenaciously they posit middle-aged white men as the center of the universe.
The protagonists may be tormented or outright wicked. They're still the ones whose problems matter more than anyone else's. Malaise, malevolence and sordidness have given their demographic's waning cachet a new lease on life. It may not be pure coincidence that plenty of middle-aged white dudes—a category, incidentally, that describes a good many TV critics, me included—swear by The Sopranos and Breaking Bad with a fervor that's sometimes oddly reminiscent of Richard Nixon's devotion to Patton.
The big exceptions to white-guyism getting off on its own Alamo have been David Simon's The Wire and Treme. But even though The Wire managed the rare feat of getting vanilla viewers invested in a show with a primarily African American cast, with (whaddya know) bupkus in Emmyland to show for it, the guy audience was quick to bail on Treme—not only because it was about musicians instead of cops, but also, I suspect, because of the amount of screen time devoted to female characters who were smarter and more resilient than the men in their lives. Those of us who stayed devoted as viewership declined will have to settle come December for a truncated five-episode wrap-up instead of a full fourth season. I'm guessing only Simon's redoubtable prestige got HBO to concede him even that much.
It's not like either David Chase or Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was unaware at the outset that dramatizing the dinosaur side of white-guy privilege was part of their brief. Mad Men kicked off in the T-Rexes’ heyday, inviting us to compare and contrast with our own era even as those hints of changing times piled up. The Sopranos opened with Tony mourning Gary Cooper and lamenting that he'd missed the best.
Still, Weiner's intermittent critique of Don Draper's sexist, all-vanilla world has a way of turning into what looks a lot like missing the good old days. Given Mad Men's social-anthropology pretensions, its coyness about engaging the biggest transformation of American life we owe the '60s for—the civil-rights revolution—is pretty much a disgrace, one the final season may or may not (I doubt it) make up for. As for Tony Soprano, one of the most poetic figures in TV history early on, he ended up morphing—from my minority perspective, anyhow—into cable drama's less poignant answer to The Honeymooners' Ralph Kramden, albeit one who could and usually did make good on Ralph's "Bang! Zoom! Right to the moon" threat.
When it comes to metaphoric dinosaurs on one last death-spasm rampage, the transformation of Breaking Bad's cancer-diagnosed Walter White (note name) from meek high-school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin would be hard to top. Yet can we please admit that the series' main narrative arc—turning "Mr. Chips into Scarface," in Gilligan's endlessly quoted line—was more or less accomplished a season or two ago? Since then, its template has become as self-perpetuating as any warhorse broadcast drama's. We tune in to see Walt get more heinous, Jesse have another attack of conscience, poor old Hank being thwarted again, and so on—which is nothing to sneeze at, I agree. The cast and the writers alike know how to deliver the goods, and the show's look is as distinctive as ever. (Those of us who don't know Albuquerque will be seeing it through Breaking Bad 's eyes for years to come.) What beats me how fans can still claim it's revelatory.
Maybe I just don't have the temperament to fetishize TV shows. Even when I love 'em, my identity isn't bound up with them in that way. But midway through the series' eight-episode conclusion, I'm surprised all the same by how less than wowed I am. Still interested, sure, but I'm missing any sense of an expanding, rather than contracting, vision—i.e., something that would alter or decisively enrich our understanding of what we've been watching over the past five years.
Then again, it could be I've just OD'd on white dudes' existential travails, not to mention the smell of devotional candles on both sides of the screen—the bane of shows that get canonized while they're still on the air. No doubt this'll prove how shallow I am, but as a heretical suspicion dawns that I'm not all that worked up about whether Walter White lives or dies, Breaking Bad's protracted denouement has me itching for the return of The Walking Dead. That's a series on much better terms with the 21st century, since everyone is equal-opportunity food.