From Cult Series To Game-Changer: ‘Breaking Bad’ Goes Out On A High

Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.

It’s difficult to imagine a more celebrated scenario than that AMC’s Breaking Bad will enjoy on Sunday night as it wraps up six seasons (or 5 ½, take your pick) and 62 brilliant episodes with a 75-minute, presumably cataclysmic finale. The gritty, dark, meth-laced drama is generating live viewer numbers exceeding 6 million, or roughly 500% greater than viewership for its maiden season in 2008. AMC was able to sell out its ad inventory for the final episode while reportedly asking between $300,000 and $400,000 for a 30-second spot. And the network has been running every episode of the series as a marathon this week leading into the climax. The TV Academy just last Sunday crowned it as television’s outstanding drama series while critics fall all over themselves in declaring Breaking Bad as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – shows in the medium’s history. Meanwhile, the series has become perhaps the definitive game-changing phenomenon in terms of binge-viewing on DVD and over Netflix, Amazon and iTunes and as a social media marvel over Twitter. Anyone who dares try to divulge an ill-timed spoiler has risked cyber wrath on a grand scale, if not outright physical harm.

Related: Emmys 2013: ‘Breaking Bad’ Triumphs On Night Of Upsets

And yet in the rush to venerate the show as a pop culture sensation throughout its final eight-episode campaign, it’s easy to forget that the series that’s earned stars Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn a combined six Emmy statuettes (half of them for Cranston) was in the beginning a cult diversion at best. Breaking Bad debuted in 2008 with an underwhelming 1.2 million total viewers and rarely exceeded 2 million through its first four seasons. The critics raved like they rarely rave, but mostly noted that this was the finest show no one was watching. In fact, during tense negotiation with the cost-conscious AMC in 2011, Sony Pictures TV reportedly sent out feelers to three other networks to see if they might be interested in picking up BB past season four. AMC apparently was interested in renewing it for only 6 or 8 episodes rather than what would become a total of 16 for the supersized, two-pronged fifth season. (more…)

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