- Seriality and Sustainability in Breaking Bad
In the popular and critical commentary on the so-called prestige television series—The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and others—critics often draw upon a vocabulary of sustainability to describe everything from a show's narrative dynamics to its prospects of remaining on the air. The critic Alan Sepinwall, for instance, comments that The X-Files "was able to borrow the bizarre atmosphere of Twin Peaks and make it more sustainable" (15–66); Robert Harvilla, writing in The Ringer, wonders whether the spate of plot twists in the second season of Mr. Robot will prove to be "unsustainable" in the long run; Avi Santo writes that HBO's emphasis on creative freedom has "raised concern over the sustainability of its most popular programs" (41). That last example brings to mind a different but related term: "Peak TV," which has recently displaced the earlier designation "Golden Age" to define our contemporary moment of television programming. The meaning of "Peak TV" varies somewhat, but in general it seems to suggest that this is a period of maximum output, where it's becoming almost impossible for most viewers to keep up with all of the worthwhile things to watch, and, as a corollary, where financial pressures, increasingly fractured audiences, overproduction, proliferation of streaming services and platforms, or some combination of all these will soon bring about some kind of falling off of interest or attenuation in quality.1 Thus, although "Golden Age" and "Peak TV" both define a significant cultural phenomenon and anticipate its inevitable end, the latter emphasizes the technological infrastructure and economic pressures of that moment, the market forces that both build and destroy. The term "Peak TV" is, of course, a play on the term "Peak Oil," the concern that we have reached or are about to reach the upper limit of petroleum production, after which the world's insatiable [End Page 58] demand for oil will have to reckon with ever-diminishing reserves.2 Like Peak Oil, Peak TV is about supply and demand, production and overproduction—in other words, about sustainability.
Now, I would hasten to add that, on some level, such language means very little, ecocritically speaking. As Stacy Alaimo has argued, the discourse of "sustainability" may have first arisen in direct opposition to mainstream, growth-oriented economic orthodoxy, but it is now commonly applied to "economies, national debts, personal debts, the housing market, food systems, the Euro and all manner of more trivial matters" in ways that "do not in any way critique the capitalist ideals of unfettered expansion" (2012, 559). For Alaimo, to talk about something like a television series being sustainable or unsustainable is to traffic in diminished terms. While that is undoubtedly true, I also want to argue here that there nevertheless remains a residue or trace of critical power in this vocabulary and, further, that the serial narrative format, with its interplay of short- and long-term temporal horizons, contains unique expressive possibilities for dramatizing the logic of environmental crisis. When The Wire creator David Simon argues that "TV is about sustaining the franchise. Not all of it. There's some very good stuff out there. But a lot of it is about sustaining the franchise. You know, looking for the hit," he is criticizing the imperative for endless narrative reproducibility, which demands stability, continuity, and stasis and thus necessarily limits the kinds of things about the world that can be represented (Paskin 2012). That is, such a narrative imperative presupposes and depends upon the idea of the endless reproducibility of the social world itself. Anyone who has seen The Wire knows that, in it, Simon takes direct aim at such assumptions and at the various institutions (criminal, educational, political) that seek to sustain themselves at the expense of other things like community, family, "real police work," and the actual physical condition of the city of Baltimore. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, draws a similar contrast to make a similar point:
I want the actions the characters take on Breaking Bad to always have consequences. I guess that in itself was a reaction to years and years of watching TV...