What the Breaking Bad Finale Can Teach Studios


The finale of AMC's Breaking Bad aired on Sunday, marking the end of one of the most memorable and groundbreaking shows on television. More importantly, like Walter White, creator Vince Gilligan ended the show on his own terms, knowing that despite its popularity, it was a finite story that needed closure. In doing so, Gilligan, who also wrote and directed the series finale, accomplished what only a handful of shows have done in the past -- finishing off his original story with a satisfying conclusion.

Source: TV.com

The success of Breaking Bad holds some valuable lessons for television and film studios, which often miss the mark spectacularly with big budget box office bombs or high-concept shows that end up going nowhere.

Two typical problems that Breaking Bad smartly avoided

Dean Norris, who played Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad, also stars in CBS' Under the Dome -- a high-concept show that is in many ways the antithesis of Breaking Bad. Under the Dome highlights two key problems that Breaking Bad skillfully avoided -- cliche characters and a failure to fully utilize the show's cast and build upon previous storylines.

The primary villains of the final season of Breaking Bad were a group of desert-dwelling white supremacists. Whereas most other shows would have resorted to the white supremacists launching a hate-filled tirade to establish their villainy, Breaking Bad cleverly sidestepped that cliche. Instead, the writers established their cruel nature through their logic and actions instead. Compare that to Under the Dome, where the entire town of Chester's Mill is populated with tired cliches -- a doomsday preacher, a clueless female sheriff, and a war hero turned criminal henchman, among many others.

CBS' Under the Dome. Source: CBS.com

Breaking Bad kept its world compact and its storylines relevant. Beyond the limited core cast of Walt, his family, and his drug world associates, only a handful of characters are introduced each season. Plot devices such as the ricin cigarette, which was introduced in season 2, eventually became part of Walt's endgame plan in the finale. Under the Dome, on the other hand, makes the mistake that plenty of TV shows make -- piling on new characters and new plots instead of building upon and strengthening old ones.

Another once great show, CBS/Showtime's Dexter, succumbed to both of these problems. Instead of resolving the previous conflicts introduced in the first seven seasons of the show, the final eighth season introduced inconsequential new characters, a random endgame villain, and an absurd ending that disrespected the characters and alienated long-term viewers. Another popular show, Disney /ABC's Lost, also lost track of its characters and storylines, eventually concluding with a hasty "everyone's dead" ending that enraged longtime fans.

In TV and movies, less is more

Just as Walt took out Uncle Jack's gang with meticulous planning and a single remote controlled machine gun, less can be more in films and movies. Let's compare the costs and viewership of Breaking Bad's finale to the third season finale of Time Warner's hit HBO series, Game of Thrones.

Production cost per episode (estimated)

Total viewers

Breaking Bad series finale

$3.0 million

10.3 million

Game of Thrones season 3 finale

$6.0 million

5.4 million

Sources: Variety.com, Contactmusic.com, Amctv.com, Cinemablend.com

Granted, Game of Thrones' eventual series finale might beat out Breaking Bad's, but the point is that TV shows don't necessarily have to be bigger, more expensive, or more epic to attract a strong following.

A similar trend is emerging in the movie industry, in which lower-budget films surprisingly outperformed more expensive ones over the summer. Take a look at these surprising numbers, in which the horror film The Conjuring and the animated hit Despicable Me flattened the more expensive competition.


Production Budget

Opening Weekend

Domestic and International Gross Total (to date)

The Conjuring

Warner Bros. (Time Warner)

$20 million

$41.9 million

$297.4 million

Despicable Me

Universal (Comcast)

$76 million

$83.5 million

$863.5 million

The Lone Ranger


$215 million

$29.2 million

$244.9 million


Universal (Comcast)

$130 million

$12.7 million

$73.1 million

Source: Boxofficemojo.com

The fact that The Conjuring and Despicable Me generated such high box office returns with much lower production costs indicates that moviegoer trends are more complex than a simple black-and-white comparison of big special effects vs. quiet dramas, as Steven Spielberg discussed in his widely publicized condemnation of the movie industry.

Ending the tale on his own terms

The most admirable thing Vince Gilligan did with Breaking Bad was ending the story at the peak of its popularity. Walt also knew that his end was near, and decided to end his tale on his own terms, with a bang rather than a whimper.

There are plenty of shows on TV that went on for too many seasons -- Dexter, CSI, Lost, 24, and The Simpsons were all kept alive past their creative prime simply because they could still reliably attract viewers and generate stable advertising revenue. Dragging a show out too long results in lackluster endings -- like in Lost and Dexter -- that make viewers forget why they enjoyed the show in the first place.

The confusing and incomplete ending of Lost frustrated many viewers. Source: Craisin.com

In movies, we saw Christopher Nolan finish off his Batman trilogy in an admirable manner, ending his version of the tale with a narrative conclusion at the peak of the franchise's popularity. Meanwhile, other franchises that should have ended, like Pirates of the Caribbean, still live on, despite the questionable appeal of the aging Captain Jack Sparrow.

Let's not ask what's next

Now that Breaking Bad is over, the question that everyone is asking is, "Which show will be the next Breaking Bad?"

No matter what, people will be disappointed with the answer. It's doubtful that AMC's Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, will ever to live up to the original series. When Lost concluded, other failed shows like Alcatraz, The River, The Event, and Zero Hour were all touted as the "next Lost" -- except that none of them lived up to fans' expectations.

So for now, let's bid a fond farewell to AMC's Breaking Bad, appreciate it for what it was, and not debate which show will be its successor. Hopefully, writers, directors, and studios will learn a thing or two from the show's recipe for success, and produce some solid, original programming as a result.

Not what, but where?

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The article What the Breaking Bad Finale Can Teach Studios originally appeared on Fool.com.

Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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