Instant Yet Unsatisfying – The Pleasure of Television Viewing

By Lifan Zhang 

As people would always say, Breaking Bad is a marathon. However, this is not necessarily  true all the time.

Not every Breaking Bad watcher is loyal (hope you are!).  Some drops into the show in half way. Some skips and “squat jumps” throughout the show. And for those ruthless binge watchers like Maddy Ledeman, Breaking Bad is a short sprint, which only takes days to finish. But seriously, are these viewing habits some perfect alternatives for Breaking Bad?

Television has stepped down from the stage of heated debate and become a staple commodity for daily entertainment just decades since its invention. Subgenres of television products spawn and develop not only in the eye of themes but also in the eye of format and the viewing communities it addresses. Gossip Girl and Mean Girls: the love of the teens. How I Met Your Mother: the love of the family. Breaking Bad: as long as an epic. Sherlock: as short as comics.

In regards to seriality and running time, TV critics Tobias and Murray have given out their own definition and thus divided the current shows into two: serial TV and episodic TV.  Serial television often times has a long term progressing story line, transforming characters, and thus it is better to be watched from the very beginning. Episodic television, on the other hand, develops plots in episode base and has relatively constant traits of figures in the show, which enables drop-in watching.

However, it is very difficult to sort  Breaking Bad precisely into one simple category of serial or episodic, because it has, more or less, incorporated both of the elements to cover as much of the viewing community as possible. This allows some highly serial shows like Breaking Bad to be available for casual drop-in viewers.

With five seasons of 45-minute episodes on the “mundane to villain” transformation of Walter White, Breaking Bad is, undeniably, a more serial television. The show has invested tremendous amount of attention to present ongoing and progressive individual development not only limited to Walt but to all characters and their interrelationships. For example, from pure partnership to a strong bond alike that of father and son, the alliance of Pinkman and White eventually collapses, when Pinkman discovers that White has poisoned Brock in the final season. Also, to Skyler, Walt is no longer the source of love but the center of fear and disappointment, which finally leads her to leave and even has affair with Ted. These dramatic twists and Walt-driven character development are unique to serial television, as Tobias considers, because of its ability to layer down incidents like chapters in novel and thus provide a systematic and substantiate viewing experience.

The harmony between Skyler and Walt has been broken.

However, there are often times sub-themes local for each episode in the favor of casual viewers (clever Gilligan!). As Murray puts, a “hybrid balance” that is used for both serial and episodic television to accommodate viewers better. For example, in the first several episodes in season 2, viewers without knowledge for the previous story can easily catch up with the plots. In Episode 1, Pinkman and Walt fear Tuco and get kidnapped by him; in Episode 2, they manage to flee successfully; in Episode 3, the pair recover from the kidnap and plan their future on meth cooking. Because each episode has a centralized issue or goal, the show is quite drop-in viewers friendly, especially with the assistance of Breaking Bad wiki and other informational online sites.

Walt and Tuco in Season 1

To be fair, a quick start is not sufficient enough for getting the most juicy part of television products, at least of Breaking Bad. The key word of the show here is “transformation”. The viewing experience will differ greatly in between those who start the show from episode 1, season 1, and those who simply read from show abstracts saying “Walter White is a struggling high school chemistry teacher who turns to a life of crime and drug after the diagnosis of lung cancer.” (Nicely put, Breaking Bad wiki! Thanks! ) The emotional experiences are missing. Many of them are subtle yet significant for the understanding of the show. Taking the relationship between Skyler and White into consideration, Skyler is so emotionally broken from her marriage, not simply because that her dying husband engages drug and crime, but also because she has suffered enough from the mental bully and the sense of insecurity from Walt. In season 1 and 2, as a pregnant mom, Skyler is left alone to face all the challenges. She worries about Walt all day but only receives cold reply and lies. These sentiments, which account for her later dishonesty and separation, cannot be attained in any way other than a slow and serial watching.

The unique charm of serial televisions like Breaking Bad is the novelistic characteristic of depicting characters and unfolding story lines in a systematic and comprehensive way. Though the story progresses subtly, it can generate dramatic effects in the whole picture and reach climax in the scope of the entire show instead of a single episode. Some like the TV critic Murray argues about the efficiency of drop-in watching approach and the “simple pleasure” it induced. However, we viewers can never fully taste the sweetness of serial televisions as of Breaking Bad from a quick bite, even though the shows can be casual viewers friendly sometimes. The spell of television viewing roots more in the our synchronic feelings with the characters, which is highly determined on a constant following of the narration, rather than in the understanding of the stories.


Related Links

1. How Has the Culture of TV (and watching TV) Changed? A.V. Club, Scott Tobias & Noel Murray



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