Everyone’s watching: The shared TV experience returns

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t watched the “Breaking Bad” finale yet, turn back now.

For one night, a television show that thrived because of new media options forced viewers to do something very old-fashioned: Gather around a television and watch something as it aired, commercials and all.

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The only television programs that tend to draw big audiences these days are things that need to be seen as they air, and these things are almost always live events: Sports, presidential debates, breaking news, award shows. Scripted shows, by comparison, can be watched other ways. They can be recorded, they can be saved, they can be nudged to the side, with the hope that spoilers can be avoided.

But waiting to watch “Felina,” the final episode of “Breaking Bad” meant more than just hearing a spoiler. It meant missing out on the cultural conversation, one that has seemingly been all-“Bad,” all the time, as the show has rocketed toward its conclusion. It meant missing the Monday morning discussions about how the finale worked, and it meant missing the morning-after conversations that can shape the way some shows are remembered.

“The Sopranos” may have been the finest television achievement of the last two decades, but discussions about the show all seem to inevitably drift toward The Cut To Black. An underwhelming finale can make the entire experience leading up to it feel like a waste in hindsight. (Look, we’re thinking “Lost,” you’re thinking “Lost,” let’s just accept that “Lost” is the shorthand here and move on.)

Things are also different for this finale and for this show than for the final episodes of other high-profile dramas in recent years. Twitter wasn’t Twitter for “The Sopranos” (though you can only imagine what GIFs would have resulted had that show’s finale aired in 2013). “Lost,” which only went off the air three and a half years ago, felt like a show that had peaked several years earlier, as did the recently-departed “Dexter.” But “Bad” broke through as it continued, reaching its conclusion just as it was achieving its greatest artistic and commercial success.

Still, live television is no longer live, and this has been the new normal for so long it’s no longer particularly new or novel. We record, we download, we stream and we wait until we have several episodes built up before shotgunning them in one blistering sitting. One episode meted out each week seems so old-fashioned. (Our grandparents trudged in the snow for three hours each way just to sit through one episode of “All in the Family” each week, you know.)

Or, as has been the case with “Breaking Bad,” we start late, giving us several seasons to binge on. Everyone who has caught up late has their story. (For me, it was between seasons four and five, with many a lovely weekend day spent huddled indoors in front of the television.)

Yet even as we turn away from viewing television shows as they air, we live in an era of insta-analysis and are buffeted by the constant churn and roil of Twitter and other social media platforms. That made the “Bad" finale something that had to be seen so that you would follow whatever came next, so you could celebrate watching something great or commiserate when it screwed up the final act.

“Felina,” the last episode of “Breaking Bad,” demanded our attention and it demanded we ignore the viewing habits developed in recent years. If you recorded it and planned on watching it after work on Monday, you had to spend the day dodging spoilers and instantly closing any e-mail that contained the words “Walt,” “Jesse” or “ricin.” Even recording it and starting it late to fast forward through the commercials (and there were so, so many commercials) was fraught with risks, because a friend could easily text you about Walt’s fate long before you reached the final scenes.

“Breaking Bad” fans have long watched the show by devouring episodes at their own pace. Series creator Vince Gilligan, after the series won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series last week, credited Netflix with keeping “Bad” on the air beyond its second season. Netflix and other options helped drive audiences to “Bad,” something clearly seen in the way the ratings inched up and then simply exploded. In 2011, the fourth season finale was viewed by 1.9 million people. Last year, the episode that wrapped up the first half of the fifth and final season netted 2.8 million viewers.

Eight episodes and months of deafening hype later, the series finale was viewed by 10.3 million people, according to AMC. (Just three million shy, it must be noted, of the viewers scored by the “Lost” finale,” which aired on ABC.)

Television used to be this great, powerful uniting force. You sat down to watch “Seinfeld” because if you missed that episode, you weren’t going to get another chance to see it for quite some time. And if you missed it, you wouldn’t understand the references the next day and if you aren’t able to share topical pop cultural jokes around the office, you may as well just quit.

That changed as technology gave us more and more ways to consume, save and revisit an ever-expanding array of television options, with an unimaginable increase in channels accompanied by an uptick in shows (as well as non-television-channel outlets like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, all with their own programming). Episodes no longer aired once and then disappeared; they premiered, becoming just another chunk of consumable entertainment available whenever we deigned to give it our attention.

“Breaking Bad” was born and nurtured in this brave new world, yet in telling an old-fashioned narrative that showed characters growing and changing and dealing with perpetually changing circumstances (rather than running in place to keep the franchise going for as long as possible), it made its finale all the more essential. “Bad” was a series with a very clear beginning hurtling toward a definite end, and because it had a finite story the ending achieved outsized import. Driven by hype, praise and the sheer power of storytelling, the final episode became an essential reminder of why we watch.

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