2013 in TV: Breaking Bad, and breaking habits

Breaking Bad's conclusion was seen on laptops and tablets rather than TV sets. Picture: Contributed
Breaking Bad's conclusion was seen on laptops and tablets rather than TV sets. Picture: Contributed
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TV critic Andrea Mullaney looks back on a year in which broadcasters struggled to keep up with viewers

In 1974, one of the first academics to take television seriously, Raymond Williams, coined the idea of “flow”: that TV’s essential nature was a continuous stream of programming, designed to be absorbed passively by the viewer. In 2013, that seemed ridiculous. TV now is beyond on-demand – viewers expect not just to control what and how they watch, but to shape that flow.

From 31,000 signing a petition to bring back Ripper Street, to watching people watch TV on Gogglebox, from David Dimbleby begging us to tweet our opinions @BBCQuestionTime to programmes like Fresh Meat being premiered online, this year has seen the traditional channels reeling as they try to give us what we want, though they’re clearly not sure what that is. Meanwhile, catch-up and streaming services are thriving as people make their own personalised viewing schedules and splurge on boxed set marathons.

Yet the latest Viewing Report from TV industry body BARB shows that there were over 500 programmes in the last year with a live audience of over eight million. We still like to watch stuff together, especially big “events” like the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who episode (10.6m watching live) or the Strictly Come Dancing final (12.6m). Soap operas, which everyone including the fans moans about, still dominate the ratings. And somehow we’re finding a way to talk about TV, either in person or online, despite these fragmented viewing habits which make spoilers the modern plague.

For instance, if you were gripped back in the spring by ITV’s Broadchurch, you had to tune in live to find out who killed Danny Latimer or face being spoiled by people either crowing that they “knew it!” or gobsmacked by the revelation it was policewoman Ellie’s husband. Another “whodunnit” or rather “whowilldoit” was revealed in August, as Peter Capaldi was announced to replace Matt Smith in Doctor Who in a peculiar ceremony, after weeks of national speculation.

That attempt to turn a drama into an event was better though than the BBC3 Afterparty following The Day Of The Doctor, which descended into farce as One Direction and Zoe Ball shouted randomly across a delayed satellite link while Steven Moffat visibly despaired. Thankfully, there was also a fine original drama, An Adventure In Space And Time, a fun online romp from Peter Davison in The Five (ish) Doctors Reboot and a pretty good anniversary episode with nostalgic touches including the return of Tom Baker. Trendsmap recorded 367 related tweets per minute in the run-up as fans and hype combined.

Also making TV history was David Suchet, bowing out of the role of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, after an unprecedented 24-year run which will surely remain the definitive portrayal.

Elsewhere, though, hype seemed to turn off viewers. The X Factor’s ratings fell despite Simon Cowell and co doing everything possible to promote the latest batch of hopefuls with a dream to which they’re willing to give 110 per cent (the show will be around until 2016, though, as ITV don’t have much to replace it). Far more worthy of tugging on our heartstrings was schoolboy Musharaf, in Educating Yorkshire, finally managing to overcome his stammer to triumphantly read aloud; his fellow pupils cried and no doubt so did many watching at home.

Cowell’s other variety show, Britain’s Got Talent, was this year puzzlingly won by a Hungarian shadow dance troupe. The BBC’s attempts to come up with a new Saturday night entertainment format were even odder: That Puppet Game Show was embarrassing, The Voice was out of tune and I Love My Country was excruciating. Luckily for them, they’ve still got Strictly, though Bruce Forsyth may finally “stop dancing” as he’s gradually edged out.

And, whatever the result of the independence referendum, we’ll still have Strictly too, according to Alex Salmond in November, who suggested that an “SBC” would swap home-grown programmes for those made down south. We’d have to make more of them if so, though the example of Denmark was cited, especially when Borgen’s Sidse Babette Knudson popped over to Edinburgh in February, causing the political elite to carry on like they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

But the BBC4 Scandi-dramas were overshadowed in the summer by The Returned on Channel 4, an icy French drama about the dead returning to an alpine town, set to a disturbing Mogwai soundtrack. Only a slightly disappointing ending, leaving everything unresolved for a second series, marred the chilling experience.

From New Zealand, film director Jane Campion brought us another drama about a rural town in Top Of The Lake, which combined stunning scenery, a strong performance by Elisabeth Moss as the cop uncovering a culture of sexual abuse, and a pointless subplot about a commune. The Fall, with Gillian Anderson chasing a serial killer, Orphan Black, with Tatiana Maslany playing multiple characters, and the revived, much grittier Wentworth aka Prisoner: Cell Block H – just released on DVD – along with Anne Reid in retirees’ romance Last Tango In Halifax, made this a banner year for great female roles.

One of the most talked about dramas of 2013 wasn’t on British TV at all: Breaking Bad, which came to a magnificent end. In the US, this cable morality thriller was a slow ratings build, but here it failed to find a broadcast home. Yet the acclaim had led many to check out the DVDs, so streaming service Netflix’s canny decision to release each episode the day after US transmission led to many new subscriptions. Those who stayed around got to see the tepid revival of Arrested Development and the brilliant prison drama Orange Is The New Black. Meanwhile rival service Lovefilm may revive the BBC’s Ripper Street, having noted the Twitter outrage at its cancellation.

Netflix also had success with on-demand-only House Of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, who gave a bullish speech at the Edinburgh International TV Festival proclaiming this the “third golden age of television”. And, in some respects, it is. Of course there are always plenty of, shall we say, divisive programmes, like Ben Elton’s hated The Wright Way, Jason Byrne’s weak Father Figure, the disappointment of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – actually, shall we just say rubbish?

But now viewers are in control more than ever, it feels less like flow, more like flux, with 2014 likely to see yet more changes: keep watching.