A Tale of Two Series


It was the best of finales. It was the worst of finales. It was the age of crackling screenwriting, it was the age of foolish plots. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of White, it was the season of dark passengers. In short, this noisy authority insists on two TV shows being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. What the Dickens am I talking about? Why, the final seasons of Dexter and Breaking Bad, happening concurrently, of course.

It just so happens that two of the more popular premium cable programs of the last decade are coming to a close at the same time, which inherently invites comparison. The direction of the two shows in their last, dying moments are in such stark contrast to one another. After toiling in obscurity for years in the shadow of its AMC brother, Mad Men, Walter White and his gang of morally conflicted miscreants are finally getting the critical accolades they deserve. On the flip side, Dexter burst onto the scene seven years ago with lots of audience love and a reasonable amount of critical acclaim. However, the show has been uneven ever since, a fact that has shown up in its reception. It has fluctuated wildly, registering its least successful season just a few years ago. It’s going out with something of a whimper this year. Let’s allow some tasty data to tell the story. Here are the Metacritic ratings for the various seasons of both shows.

Dexter_v_BBThe current season of Breaking Bad, spread out over two summers, is tracking at a whopping 99(!), and the show has improved every single year. Dexter, on the other hand, has lived below its second season peak (85) for six consecutive seasons. The level of interest shows up in viewership, as well. Breaking Bad debuted in 2008 to 1.41 million viewers. That number had more than quadrupled by the time the second half of season 5 premiered on August 11th, all the way up to 5.9 million viewers. In fairness, Dexter has also grown its audience, but not nearly as much. Beginning with just over a million viewers in 2006, the most recent season debuted to 2.5 million viewers. The question at the heart of all of this is, “What is Breaking Bad doing that Dexter isn’t?”

This nerd is long gone. But then, we've always known he'd disappear.

This nerd is long gone. But then, we’ve always known he’d disappear.

There are several factors I’d like to point out, and I think they make up a significant part of the difference in reception of the shows. First and foremost, Breaking Bad has had a plan since day one. Vince Gilligan’s pitch for the show has become so wildly popular that I feel guilty for even bringing it up. From the beginning, Vince Gilligan wanted to “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” Whether you like that premise or not, it gave the writers a rudder to guide the direction of the show. They knew where they were starting and they knew where they’d end up. They even knew that they didn’t want to hang on too long just to milk the show’s popularity, which is a pretty admirable approach to creating art. Meanwhile, across the country at Miami Metro, Dexter has wobbled along, occasionally poaching storylines from the books, occasionally making things up as they go. They didn’t have the rudder, and it gave them too much freedom. And that brings me to my second point.

Wait... which season's serial killer buddy was this again?

Wait… which season’s serial killer buddy was this again?

The people who make Dexter have used their freedom poorly. Major plot point after major plot point has been rehashed so many times. Do you remember the incredibly memorable season where Dexter Morgan befriended another serial killer? Of course you do, because it’s a plot point that has happened again (Lila) and again (Miguel) and again (Trinity) and again (Lumen, though to a lesser degree) and again (Hannah McKay) and even still again this season (Zach Hamilton). How about all of the tension created when one of Dexter’s law enforcement peers was hot on his trail? At this point, we’ve seen Doakes, LaGuerta, Quinn and Quinn’s golem (Liddy), Lundy, and even his own sister all chasing after Dexter, all failing in varying ways. Instead of using it as a device to build the tension to a crescendo that should be paying off right now, the show has introduced it time and again as a way to waste time. And while the chase for Dexter Morgan has had some fine moments, it has ultimately meant nothing to the overall quality of the show other than the way Dexter and Deb interact. Compare and contrast that with the plight of Walter White. With each passing season, his own brother-in-law inched closer and closer. When Hank’s trail ran cold for various reasons- health, for instance- it was for a reason. It had a major impact on the character development of both Hank and Walt since Hank’s injury was the result of Walt’s actions. And now, that choice by the writers is paying off in buckets. It’s been a slow burn leading to a very explosive powder keg.

Speaking of Walt’s behavior having consequences, it’s another major difference between the shows. Walter White’s actions have led to some disastrous consequences for everyone around him, from Jesse to Skyler to Hank to Gus Fring. At this point, his whole family is in danger. And it’s a very REAL danger because the show’s writers have consistently demonstrated that karma will come back to bite villainous characters in the posterior. Dexter, on the other hand, is the only justice in the world of Miami Metro. And his justice is only meted out on rehashed villains. The show’s shining moment was the end of Rita, and that’s because Dexter’s behavior finally caught up with him. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really happened since. He’s still roaming the area with only a handful of people knowing his true identity. He’s in no danger of being caught because, time and again, he has implausibly found a magic loophole to escape. It has completely neutered the show.

Breaking Bad (Season 4)

In so many ways, this action and the subsequent reaction speaks volumes about the difference between the two shows.

Implausibility brings me to my final point. Breaking Bad is notorious by now for its use of Chekhov’s Gun (per Wikipedia: a dramatic principle which requires that every element in a narrative be necessary and irreplaceable, and that everything else be removed). Walter White’s whole life is massively implausible. But the writers go to great pains to establish plausibility as much as possible in a show with its premise. And Walter gets caught. Skyler busted him first. His own son has known he’s full of it, and various nefarious meth characters (the cousins come to mind) discovered his identity. Hank busted him. Something as insignificant as blowing up a brand new car led to a scene in which Saul tells Walt how much he must pay for his indiscretion. Even a cartoonishly bright character like Walter White is not beyond reproach, and it adds plausibility to the show. Dexter (the show overall), on the other hand, clumsily introduces ways for Dexter (the character) to escape certain doom. There is absolutely no way that someone behaving the way Dexter has behaved would NOT be caught by his peers. His tracks are all over the place and his excuses are flimsy. Yet everyone buys them. Those that don’t buy those excuses disappear. I almost sprained my eyeballs rolling them a few weeks ago when Dexter used face recognition software to turn a 20 year old photo into an accurate portrait of what the person would look like today… and it just so happened to be a guy that Dexter had recently met. At what point are the writers just messing with us?

It is a far, far better thing that Vince Gilligan has done with Breaking Bad, perhaps more than anyone has ever done; it is a far, far better rest that we viewers go to than we have ever known. Also, the final season (and last several years, really) of Dexter have been pretty lousy.


Filed under Television, TV Shows

11 responses to “A Tale of Two Series

  1. Very nice write-up. I think what makes Dexter hooky is the background voice narrative, Dexter’s intrapersonal thoughts speaking. It always works. Dexter and Arrested Development both have impressive eloquence when it comes to that. I haven’t seen Dexter for a long time now. I lost interest. I’m one of the reasons that prove the rating flunctuatuon to hold true.

  2. I haven’t watched any of Dexter so I can’t comment on the comparison. However Breaking Bad has to be one of the best television series that I have ever watched. Although it has been fairly predictable of the outcome of the final season, the road that was to take us there was far from predictable which I think is what has made it so successful and brilliant. It has been one of the stories where we know what is going to happen from the beginning, which is why we adore it so much.

    • As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best ever, or at least in the premium cable TV era. And some day, something else might replace it, but HOLY COW! Can you imagine how good a show would have to be to be better than Breaking Bad?

  3. Love the write up. I started watching Dexter awhile back, then never continued. It’s one of those shows I hope to re-visit in full once I have time.

    • It’s… ok. I honestly couldn’t recommend it, really, unless you’re just bored and don’t care if you watch some painfully crappy TV (with the caveat that it’s ALWAYS fun because… well, who doesn’t want to see social monsters die at the hands of Dexter?).

  4. The Guy Who Was Babysat By the Sister of Nuclear Man from Superman IV

    I think Dexter is like a record that started to skip for a few seasons before self-correcting. The story has reluctantly progressed…dead wife, sister finds out he’s a serial killer, LaGuerta and Dokes are killed. Granted, Dexter could have been condensed to 5 seasons of concise storytelling; however there is something comforting about its formulaic tendency to repeat storylines. Why else would people watch sitcoms for 10 plus years (Cheers, Cosby Show, Night Court, Married With Children)? People like formula even though they typically won’t admit it.

    • I hear you… but everything you just named is a sitcom, not a premium cable drama. I’m cool with repeating storylines and punchlines on a sitcom. But a premium cable drama really should go above that stuff.

      You really hit it out of the park about condensing Dexter. If they’d started their show with a map and REALLY thought out where they wanted to take it, it would’ve helped that show so much more. Skip 2-3 of those seasons and they’d have an amazing show.

  5. nimorphi

    The thing that always bothered me about Dexter is how the hell does he still have a job? He is NEVER at work and if he is it is only for a few minutes to search for people who he wants to kill. Also, Miami metro homicide is full of the biggest idiots on the planet. All of them are incompetent. Doakes was the only one worth his salt and he got killed off after two seasons.Then last season LaGuerta actually gets her head out of her ass for a few minutes and does some real police work and realizes that something is wrong with Dexter and then she dies.
    Breaking bad on the other hand is more closely set in the real world. People see through walt’s BS. People are onto him. Stuff that happened has consequences seasons later. And when he does pull something to get out of a situation it feel organic to the situation. Also, Breaking Bad has Todd. And he is bad shit crazy.

    • It’s amazing how quickly Todd has become an acclaimed psychotic character. The dude’s been in… what, like 6 episodes? But people talk about him like he’s Pennywise the Clown. I love it.

  6. Pingback: Month in Review: September | French Toast Sunday

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