It occurred to me while watching the TV series Hannibal: “This is a really good-looking, artistically done show, but I could not possibly care less about the characters in it.” There are other flaws with Hannibal, too, most of them having to do with plausibility. In the past, I think I would have overlooked these flaws. I might have watched the show for its shock value alone. Who knew that you could get away with such graphic, gruesome violence on network TV? Here’s the thing, though: none of that violence affects me in even the slightest way. It’s so over the top that it’s downright cartoonish. A serial killer who plays his victims’ vocal chords like a cello? Yeah, it’s bloody, but it’s also bloody ridiculous. Contrast that with the violence in Breaking Bad. There has been some pretty gruesome stuff there, too: a corpse being dissolved in acid, a character having his throat slit, another having half his face blown off by a bomb. Yet, none of it has been gratuitous because it has all served the plot, rather than the plot serving it. That’s one difference between a mediocre show like Hannibal and a great show like Breaking Bad. The horror in Breaking Bad feels so much more real, because you’ve come to know and sympathize with the characters.
Breaking Bad isn’t the only great TV drama we’ve seen in the last decade, of course. In the same way it throws the mediocrity of a show like Hannibal into relief, the greatness of The Wire makes its successor Treme a disappointment in comparison. The humanity of Mad Men and The Sopranos puts their bastard love child Boardwalk Empire to shame, proving you can’t take the two shallowest traits of a show (It’s a period piece! It’s a mobster drama! It’s a period piece and a mobster drama!) and mash them together hoping to reproduce their success. Keep in mind, I think Boardwalk Empire is one of the better shows on TV right now; I just don’t think it holds a candle to the best shows on TV right now. The standards have been raised so high that a show that is anything less than truly excellent can only seem like a bit of a letdown.
At the time I’m writing this, there are two episodes of Breaking Bad left before it’s over and done with for good (its planned spin-off Better Call Saul notwithstanding). Next year Mad Men will be wrapping up. When that happens two of the three best TV dramas of all time (The Wire being the third) will have come to an end. There’s been a lot of talk about this being the Golden Age of Television, and I’m in agreement with that sentiment. My fear is that we may now be heading into a Silver Age, where we have a new crop of shows that try to emulate the critical success of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and fall just a little bit short. I’m not saying that’s a sure thing, and I certainly hope to be proven wrong, but Breaking Bad is one of those once-in-a-lifetime pieces of art that you experience and know on some level that you will never experience anything quite like it again.
[EDIT: I would hate to give the impression that I don’t think there are other ongoing dramas that are totally excellent and worth watching. Game of Thrones is by far the best fantasy series to ever grace television, The Americans had one of the strongest first seasons of any show I’ve ever seen, and I’m really looking forward to season three of Homeland. And I don’t hate Boardwalk Empire. I still think it’s an enjoyable show. Steve Buscemi is pretty much the best. Hannibal is way overrated, though, despite Mads Mikkelsen being all sorts of awesome.]