Entertainment Geekly: 'Breaking Bad,' 'Lost,' and the precarious hysteria of TV fandom
Entertainment Geekly is a new weekly column which examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
Fans are awful. I don’t mean fans of any one particular TV show or movie franchise or literary saga or videogame cycle. I mean like the whole contemporary idea of fandom is one of the signature annoying facts of life in the modern age. Fans are passionate and angry and incoherent; fans always know everything, always more than you. They even know more than the people who make the freaking things that fans are fans of. George Lucas, Damon Lindelof, George R. R. Martin — fans create gods and then fans destroy their own gods.
(I promise this gets to Breaking Bad in a second. Roll with me.)
Fans love everything unless they hate something, and when that happens fans can hate with the kind of unblinking blood rage that our ancestors reserved for tribal warfare and boy-band debates. I’m generalizing, but I’m also being very accurate. At the extreme, if you want to argue with a fan about their favorite thing, it inevitably goes something like this:
You: [Reasoned, thoughtful contention implying that the thing they like is not perfect.]
Fan: Shut up.
It’s no fun talking to a zealot, but more and more, contemporary fandom is zealotry. We live in an era defined by hyper-obsessive enjoyment of pop cultures whose internal mythologies represent large meta-spatial corners of the internet. We all accept this without quite knowing what it means. Everything feels brand-new to people who are too young to notice how history repeats, but this all feels genuinely different: A state of affairs brought about by the internet and social media and the rise of mega-franchises and the decline of religious institutions. (People need something to believe in, so why not believe in Star Wars, a franchise that teaches good moral lessons — just like the Bible! — and has lots of exciting fight scenes and people with superpowers — just like the Bible!)
Mentally, it is difficult to imagine someone from the 50s declaring themselves a “fan” of a TV show the way someone self-identifies as a “Fan” of Walking Dead or Vampire Diaries or Firefly or, hell, NCIS: LA. This is partly because we inaccurately agree that TV wasn’t as good in the ’50s and partly because we assume people in the ’50s had better things to do, like build the infrastructure of modern society and repress all sexual urges.
But modern fandom has roots in that time period. Francesca Coppa’s fascinating essay “A Brief History of Media Fandom” (available in the Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet) traces our contemporary idea of media fandom — fan clubs, fanfiction, fan conventions — to a pair of TV shows from the 1960s: Star Trek and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The latter has been forgotten by everyone under the age of 50, so in the bizarre logic of the parody dystopia we inhabit, Hollywood is making a new movie out of it starring Armie Hammer. The former is basically the Patient Zero of fandom: A short-lived and low-rated and utterly unique curiosity that inspired half a century of spinoffs and tie-ins and spoofs and reboots. In a weird way that we’re still trying to understand, Star Trek became a medium unto itself. There was a time in my youth where I essentially only consumed Star Trek things, the way kids in earlier generations consumed “movies” or “TV shows” or “books that didn’t have a brand name in their title.” (This was the time in my youth when I usually argued that the best Star Trek franchise was the New Frontier books. Thank God I grew up before the internet.)
Of course, the ’60s also saw the dawn of a very different, more recognizable and more culturally validated fandom: An obsession with rock ‘n roll music, identified forever in A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles fans screaming with happiness and crying with joy, driven into near-orgy hysteria by the sound of one of the greatest bands in history playing the cutest (and in hindsight least interesting) music of their career.
Contemporary TV fandom reflects both of those ancestries: The lonely nerd in the basement painting Nurse Chapel fan art or typing Kirk-Spock slash fiction; and the screaming mob-mentality masses in a perpetual state of angry ecstasy. But there’s a new and weird edge to TV fandom: An obsession with being the best. If you want to understand how bizarre our relationship with television is, you have to understand that — at this moment in time — it’s possible to say that Breaking Bad is the Greatest Television Show of All Time. You could walk into a crowded room filled with smart/culturally aware human beings, stand up on a podium, and declare: “Television has been a thing for several generations, and the art of producing fictional stories for television has been steadily evolving since the Eisenhower administration, and the whole nature of the television medium has rewired contemporary society and evolved the whole notion of ‘being human’ in fascinating ways that our species won’t understand until your great-great-grandchildren are dead — and the absolute apex of all that evolution is a show about angry bald people that airs on Sunday right before something called Low Winter Sun.”
In any other medium, this would be a breach of etiquette. You can’t walk out of a movie theater and declare that a new movie you just saw is the Greatest Movie of All Time: Movies follow the Baseball Hall of Fame Eligibility Rules, with a five-year period required before a film can legitimately enter the All-Time List. (True cinephiles would argue that it’s more like five decades, which is why nobody likes true cinephiles.) The rules are actually harsher for music, since everyone basically agrees that music was at its absolute pinnacle whenever they were young. And most cultural arbiters agree that the era of All-Time Greatness in Literature is finished, since most contemporary popular fiction is written for tenth-graders and read by adults while most contemporary literary fiction is written for writers and read by no one.
But right now, you can say that Breaking Bad is the Greatest TV Show of All Time, and even if people disagreed with you, they would consider it an absolutely respectable choice; in all likelihood, it would be on their Top Five, narrowly edged out by another TV show from the last decade. This is ludicrous of course, because greatness is a totally subjective trait — unhelpful for cultural discourse and also because Deadwood is clearly the best show ever. But the main reason this is a bit silly is that Breaking Bad still has four episodes to go. When you talk about Breaking Bad right now, you are essentially talking about a disputed text: It’s like analyzing an unfinished novel, or trying to offer a complete portrait of the Beatles’ career arc before they recorded Abbey Road.
A couple of weeks ago, everyone was talking about the Skyler Problem: How the character has become a uniquely despised character, even though she doesn’t cook meth or kill people or prefer to be called “Flynn.” This was a large issue because half the internet seems to exist to despise female characters and the other half of the internet seems to exist to criticize people who despise female characters. The conversation was endlessly interesting — Anna Gunn, Skyler herself, weighed in on the issue in the NY Times. It was also incomplete, because this week’s episode featured a scene that saw Skyler go full-Lady Macbeth, a transformation that is one of the least convincing character leapfrogs on a show that usually tracks its central personalities with careful, tick-tock-precision. Of course, like almost every show in what we might as well call the Difficult Men Era of Television, Breaking Bad is less successful with — or just less interested in — its female characters than its male characters. (Even after all these years, Marie’s defining character trait is still Purple.)
And that’s okay! We tend to compare television to movies, but the more accurate comparison might actually be to music. No band makes only good albums, and no album has only good songs; in this metaphor, every TV show is a band, every season is an album, American Horror Story is David Bowie and Homeland is probably The Strokes. But there’s a bleak edge to Breaking Bad fandom: A kind of insistence that saying that some part of the show is anything less than perfect is tantamount to heresy. This is stupid, because nothing is perfect. And it’s also the kind of energy that can actually damage a show. The last time that the final season of a TV drama was greeted with such singular obsessive all-encompassing internet-dominating frenzy was Lost, the show that defined a whole era of TV fandom, with GIFs and wikis and theory-baiting flashforwards. People don’t really like to talk about Lost now, except to use it as an example of what not to do. (Always have a plan. Don’t end in purgatory. No corks.)
There’s an idea that Lost ultimately failed its fans, but that has always seemed disingenuous to me. Because the weird truth about modern fandom is that it tends to be based specifically on what doesn’t exist — the aspirational, and vaguely narcissistic, idea that the thing itself is less important than the fan’s perspective of the thing. That’s true of central fan notions like ‘shipping and fanfiction — literally imprinting an entirely new story onto the story that actually happens on the show — but it’s also true about our relationship with a serialized narrative that is still in progress. Lost is just the most extreme example of a show that conjured up its fandom based on the promise that everything would pay off eventually — more often than not, when you talked about Lost you were talking about where Lost was going and what your theories were about Lost, which is another way of talking about vapor. But the same was true of The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica, two incredible shows with less-than-incredible series finales. George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” isn’t constructed around a mystery-mythology like those other books, but it’s the new go-to running example for a series that needs to “stick the landing” in its conclusion; not coincidentally, it’s also a great example of how terrible fans can be.
(ASIDE: Over a decade after X-Files ended, people have forgiven the show mostly because they’ve forgotten why they were angry; X-Files is probably more remembered now for its anthology-style monster-of-the-week episodes, which constantly pushed the show’s boundaries in weird and wonderful ways, than for its at-the-time-revolutionary “Mythology,” which was melting aliens and one-armed russians and Navajo and magnetite or something? I’m guessing the same thing will happen with Battlestar Galactica: Episodes that have nothing to do with the uber-plot will look better, while myth-diving episodes with weird visions of operahouses will look worse. Basically, everyone’s going to finally realize that “Dirty Hands” is awesome, you guys. END OF ASIDE.)
Breaking Bad is a very different show from Lost, and the general consensus right now is that Bad can’t possibly betray fans the way that Lost did. Maybe; maybe not. Very few series finales are actually good. The worst thing about fans is that they have deeply felt beliefs that can also shift on a dime; they only feel the most extreme emotions, which means that no longer loving something basically means despising it. The not-very-secret secret about Breaking Bad is that a lot of people who watch the show are still actively rooting for Walt: Like Tony Montana, Gordon Gekko, and Tyler Durden, he’s an obvious villain who is charismatic enough to become a uniquely American hero. It’s possible that the final episode will punish Walt — and, by extension, people who support him.
Maybe it’s time to rewrite the Bill of Rights for Fandom. To demand that everyone take a breath and realize that even great things aren’t perfect and even very bad things can be interesting. To acknowledge that The Thing You Like is not the Greatest Thing Ever just because you like it; indeed, to admit that your own personal preferences are interesting specifically because they are personal, because not everyone has to like everything that you like all of the time. At their worst, the modern fan is a nerd who doesn’t realize that they’ve become a monster — which sounds an awful lot like Walter White.