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Today I consider myself the luckiest TV critic on the face of the earth
Breaking Bad’s pilot aired on AMC on January 21, 2008, a Monday. A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps was taking pitches for shows that the new TV Club section should cover in the new year. TV Club started in the fall of 2007, just before a writers’ strike paralyzed television production, and the section had had to establish itself on reality recaps and classic rewatches. But scripted shows were coming back—for instance, my husband Noel Murray was about to start covering LOST with the season 4 premiere—and the TV Club crew was looking to expand.
The day after BB’s first episode aired—Tuesday January 22—I emailed Keith pitching myself to cover The New Adventures of Old Christine, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus CBS sitcom that Noel and I loved. (“I just don't think this is for us,” he responded.) The second item in my short email read as follows:
I wonder as well whether we ought to add Breaking Bad on AMC. There was a huge call among the commenters for Mad Men this [past] fall, which we didn't do because it was mostly over before we started the section. But I was really intrigued by the premiere last night, and I think it's worth jumping on right now so that we make those commenters happy and (again) put some scripted content in the section. I'd love to do Breaking Bad if you agree, and could get an initial post up today.
Keith responded: “This however... Let's do it as a one-off and see what kind of enthusiasm we get. Can you get a post up today?”
I could. And we got some enthusiasm.
Occasionally because of travel conflicts Noel filled in (three episodes if my count is correct). But otherwise I weathered the lengthening breaks between seasons and wrapped The A.V. Club’s coverage, which was getting thousands of comments by the end, on September 29, 2013.
By that time I had shed all my other freelance assignments except for How I Met Your Mother, which I also saw all the way to the end (although I didn’t start writing about it until the third season premiere). I thought I was done with TV criticism. Then in 2015, current TV editor Erik Adams emailed to ask, before he handed the Better Call Saul assignment to anyone else, if I wanted the gig: “If you're still thinking about making a return to weekly recaps, I couldn't think of a better way to do so than delivering an encore to the best Breaking Bad coverage on the Internet.”
I hesitated. I always hesitated, that’s what I want y’all to know. “Inclined to accept” is what I wrote back to Erik, then when assured that screeners were available, I committed: “Very generous of you to offer. I hope I add value to the coverage.” The gaps between seasons and half seasons only got longer, and every time Erik popped up in my inbox a month or so before the premiere to make sure I was still keen to continue, I hesitated anew. By the end of Breaking Bad, the gig had become terrifyingly high profile, with hundreds of thousands of readers each week. The scrutiny—along with the potential for making mistakes and for getting embroiled in conflict—was nerve-wracking. Every time I finished a season of BCS I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders, and considered the possibility of not returning.
When my friends, editors, and staffers in Chicago were terminated by the AV Club’s parent company, that decision was made for me. But as a consequence, my feelings about covering the last season turned upside down. Suddenly the stressful aspects of writing about the show no longer outweighed the opportunity, because the stress was largely tied to that large media platform (which, season after season, I felt less equipped to mount). Maybe there was somewhere else for this last season. There would regrettably be a break in continuity—these recaps wouldn’t live where all the others did—but at least I’d get to finish what I started, and be one of the very few who’d gone pillar to post.1
Noel reminded me that fellow former A.V. Club contributor Myles McNutt had recently started a Substack, Episodic Medium. Might be a place for me there, although at the moment it was a solo act. So I reached out:
I’m not sure I’m interested in shopping coverage anywhere else — it’s not something I need to do, as a job. But I find it frustrating that there was only one season to go for me … Noel mentioned on our walk today that your Substack might be a place that final season coverage could live. I have no idea whether that’s something you’d be into, how it would work, even whether I’d want to do it! But I thought I’d reach out to start the conversation.
Myles was enthusiastic, and shared that he had dreams of roping in some of the old A.V. Club crew. But he also encouraged me to pitch to a bigger site (“the platform you deserve” was his very kind phrase). A few weeks later, he got back in touch as the advance reviews started to appear. I hadn’t gone shopping myself around, still feeling very ambivalent about signing up for the spotlight; I decided to wait and see if any offers would come my way. None did. “If you are still willing to host, I'm willing to contribute,” I wrote back. Myles announced the recaps on April 11, and now here we are.
Emphasis on the “we.” Because the great gift of this final go-round has been the restoration of a truly engaged, appreciative community. Yes, I’m talking about you. Those early years of the TV Club had attracted a cadre of regular commenters, and writers regularly engaged with them, which fostered a sense of conversation. At the scale reached by 2013, though, the comments were an unmanageable and fraught place. I lived in dread of the guys that would jump in to take me to task for misidentifying guns or cars, or to argue that a woman shouldn’t be writing about this hypermasculine show. All the great people were still there, but so were a lot of folks who didn’t have any investment in the kind of discourse we valued, and the competition for visibility in those crowded comment sections led to a lot more performative jackassery. I used to pride myself on being active in the comments, but by that last BB season, chat was going brrrr from the jump and it was just impossible to keep up, and exhausting to feel like I should try.
I didn’t know what to hope for in terms of comments here. I told myself that even if no one was reading, it was worth it just to have a place to finish the run. But of course I wanted readers, and of course I wanted a group of people to gather in the space and talk about the show. So I hope you all know how astounding this community has been, far beyond my wildest dreams and, I imagine, Myles’ too.2 Not just the numbers of subscribers and commenters, but much more important, the type of conversation that started happening -- people posting about their responses, theories, and character interpretations, along with mini-essays about thematic resonances and mentions of episodic moments for which I hadn’t found space.
This is the end of a long road, and I’m so grateful you were here for it. I think of the alternatives—commentless posts on some big media site, or chaotic battles royale in the comments at the TV Club—and I feel damn fortunate to have landed here instead. So many people at the A.V. Club kindly made space for me along the way -- the editors I’ve already mentioned, along with Emily St. James, Sonia Soraiya, Kyle Ryan, Josh Modell, Danette Chavez, and others. But most of all, I owe this stretch run to Myles, who opened up his personal project to me. We keep saying that this site is shaping up to recapture those glory days of early TV Club, and probably more than anything else I’ve done in these 14.5 years of TV writing, I’m proudest of being a part of that.
To be a part of it too, and read Donna’s review of the Better Call Saul finale, become a paid subscriber to Episodic Medium.
The audience for my academic writing pretty much rounds down to zero.3 But I run into people who have read my recaps for these two shows all the time. Back when TV Club started, we had no idea weekly episodic coverage of television would be anything other than ephemeral. To my surprise, what we put on the web has continued to draw an audience, as people rewatching the shows—or going through them for the first time—find the recaps and read along. The whole enterprise has been an unexpected fusion of responding to the moment and creating something of lasting value.
Yet the most unimaginable good fortune was lucking into these shows in particular; shows that have turned out to be among the best ever made. It might have been otherwise. Without Albuquerque—not Gilligan’s original plan—what decision points might never have manifested? What possibilities and constraints would have been absent in shaping the distinct pacing and style that emerged? My fortunes as a TV critic are bound to those contingencies. Because I landed in the ABQ at the very start, I’ll always be found here, anytime someone looks for a companion to the series.
The end of this show coincides with a milestone in my family life, as my youngest (who was three and a half years old when Breaking Bad premiered) leaves for college in a couple of days. They’re saying goodbye to their time as a child and a dependent. I’m saying goodbye to this enterprise of a decade and a half. But neither of us are turning our backs. These places have nurtured and challenged us. They’ve changed along with us. And we will always be proud to claim them.
Alan Sepinwall did the full stint on Breaking Bad on his blog and at UpRoxx, the first three seasons of BCS at UpRoxx, and the last three at Rolling Stone. Respect.
Myles here—can confirm.