When talking about TV isn’t enough: A study about (and around) the “Breaking Bad” premiere

So let’s break down AMC’s Sunday night and only say eight actual words about “Breaking Bad.” Sound good? Good.

Let me state up front that I don’t watch preview trailers as a general rule. This comes from both personal and professional preference. I don’t like seeing a glimpse of what’s going to come as a fan. By and large, I’m happy to wait a week to see the full show in context, especially if I like the show. And back when I reviewed episodes on a weekly basis, I didn’t want anything in those previews to color my judgment. If that meant something in the preview instantly invalidated my theory or analysis, I was fine with that. (And Lord knows I always had someone in the comments to point out how wrong I was based on the preview.)

low-winter-sun-premiere-pic.jpgSo I don’t like previews, and don’t watch them, and still think it’s shady that AMC left “Breaking Bad” fans dangling for the first twenty minutes of the “Low Winter Sun” premiere to get a glimpse of next week’s episode. To exploit diehard fans’ love of the show to secure more eyeballs for the network’s premiere speaks volumes about the low opinion AMC has both for its viewers and “Low Winter Sun.” There are plenty of ways to leverage a show like “Breaking Bad” to help launch a new program. But essentially holding those who didn’t plan to watch “Sun” hostage in order to get another quick fix of “Bad” seems like a mighty efficient way to ensure that “Sun” fails straight out of the gate.

After all, this isn’t about clever marketing but outright antagonism. Many on Twitter last night pointed out that AMC is far from the only network to pull this type of stunt, as if this were a reason to not get angry about each and every iteration of this technique. The network tapped into the zeitgeist on the wings of breathless analysis from critics/journalists and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people who did full rewatches leading up to the premiere. AMC then capitalized on a one-time only acme to potentially cook the ratings’ books in the hopes of securing favorable (if incredibly misleading) headlines touting “Sun”’s opening night ratings. (As it turns out, “Breaking Bad” did boffo numbers, and “Sun” essentially petered out in comparison.)

So now AMC doesn’t get the one-time headlines, and actively angered at least some people who felt tricked into watching something they didn’t want to for twenty minutes. But it’s not as if the network started its ploys once the episode ended. Like many official show Twitter accounts, “@BreakingBad_AMC” decided that it would livetweet plot points and quotes throughout the East Coast airing in order to drum up social media traffic for the program. It boggles the mind that any account thinks this is a good idea. Apparently all those that man the official show social media controls went to the same seminar, where some dude in a shiny suit plied them with energy drinks and convinced them that livetweeting quotes 1) wasn’t utterly redundant to those concurrently watching, and 2) wouldn’t totally spoil the episode for anyone either on the West Coast or on any sort of delay.

The answer to “Why do either of these things happen?” is because we allow them to happen. If AMC got data that proved that holding back previews until the first ad break of the following program didn’t work, they wouldn’t have employed it. If people mass-unfollowed accounts for livetweeting quotes, no account would do it. But neither thing ever happens, and all that does unfold are a small minority vocally complaining while others either silently accept or actually enjoy it. I don’t follow many official accounts anymore, since episodes turn into an echo chamber. Rather than provide additional material that might be valuable to investigate after the show (maybe “Scandal” links to similar real-life cases to the one depicted in the episode, or “Parks and Recreation” links to an outtake of an especially funny scene), these network Twitter accounts seek to reinforce barely-extant content until it turns into concrete gospel.

Which brings us to “Talking Bad.”

talkingbad01grid.jpgI mean, I tried to be open-minded. I gave Chris Hardwick more than a fair shake a few weeks ago, and I still stand by what I said in that piece. But all “Talking Bad” did was prove how difficult it is to have a critical discussion about a piece of television on television. In fact, if I were feeling hopelessly negative, I’d say the chance of a “Siskel & Ebert”-type show about TV is impossible to pull off in this day and age. A show like “Talking Bad” doesn’t have the responsibility to elevate the discourse about television. But it also didn’t have to be yet another safe spot meant to remove all chance for not merely dissent, but even analysis.

I’ve heard people calling “Talking Bad” and “Talking Dead” as shows “for the fans,” but come on: that’s complete and total bullshit. The types of fans I know don’t look at their favorite shows and ignore the possibility that it’s not perfect. Engaging with a show critically (which is different from, but not mutually exclusively so, to criticizing it) isn’t the opposite of celebrating it. Done correctly, it’s the very embodiment of celebrating it. (Cue, as always, Moff’s Law, as one should as often as possible in times such as this.) Hardwick’s cultural power is always ever on the rise, and while “Talking Bad” was less fanboy than “Talking Dead,” it still didn’t attempt to engage “Breaking Bad” on anything more than a surface level. Putting a TV critic, a cinematographer, or a cultural historian opposite Vince Gilligan sends a message that this show wants to have substance. Putting Julie Bowen against Gilligan sends the message that nothing substantive is welcome.

(That has nothing to do with Bowen being an actress and everything about her only qualification for being there as “she watches the show”. Well, I watch “House Hunters” like a boss, and I am not qualified to pick out the right house for anyone.)

When you add up the prolonged wait for the preview trailer, the reinforcement offered up by the show’s Twitter feed, and hermetically sealed world of “Talking Bad,” you don’t have an anomaly so much as the potential future for how networks will seek to leverage fan engagement in order to reestablish primacy over an increasingly independent viewership. The fact that some are hailing the inclusion of Twitter data into Nielsen ratings hides the fact that networks are going to be increasingly obnoxious in their intrusions into the viewing experience. I’m looking forward to watching shows like “Enlisted” this Fall. But if FOX slaps hashtags on the screen every eight seconds that have been already preloaded into the accounts of each and every actor on the show, who then ask each of their followers to retweet each new message from our Social Media Overlords…well, THAT might be the thing that finally pushes me off Twitter and force me to take up some new obsessive hobby like knitting or drinking.

Rather than conform to a pre-existing narrative, “Talking Bad” could break the mold by demonstrating that going off-script can yield positive results for all involved. If you listen to the recent Nerdist podcast with Vince Gilligan, it was approximately 3,000x more informative, interesting, and substantive than what went down on “Talking Bad.” Hardwick can totally do a version of “Talking Bad” that gets into the nitty gritty of its themes, motifs, and motivations. The fact that “Talking Bad” exists AT ALL is a testament to its popularity and viability. We know this show has a lot to discuss and dissect. It doesn’t need a weekly pat on the back to make anyone other than AMC feel better. To put this in terms of the show, “Talking Bad” is a half-measure at a point in time during which networks are looking for ever more creative ways to measure audience involvement. What audiences should be looking for aren’t programs that echo their own thoughts, but ones that challenge those preconceptions. Ultimately, we shouldn’t be talking about shows like “Breaking Bad.” We should be having a conversation about it. There’s a difference, and until both networks and audiences fully realize that, things like what happened Sunday night will only proliferate in the weeks and months ahead.

Oh, “Breaking Bad” itself? That was a darn good episode of TV. (See? Eight actual words, as promised.)