There has never been a greater collective plugging of ears than the days just before, and just after, the series finale of Breaking Bad.
After obsessive watching and rewatching, in cable time and Netflix streaming time, tweeting and Facebooking and all cyberchats in between, fans treated the end of AMC's chem-teacher-turned-meth-lord fantasy with a frenzied, religious, deeply personal zeal.
For the 10 million viewers who tuned in — the show actually drew more eyes the longer it was on, a modern phenomenon for sure — Walter White's denouement was, in a strange way, their own denouement, at least in terms of pulsing fandom.
And for those still catching up, and there are a lot of us — spoilers or death, boys and girls.
Breaking Bad fans are not alone in their rabid lust. Never before in TV history have so many shows — primarily serialized adult dramas, brought to us in diverse, consumable 21st century ways and then recirculated through heated debate and adulation — bewitched so many.
When AMC hit The Walking Dead premieres tonight, Zombie Mania will again take hold with the same, maybe even greater, fervor. Will hunky Daryl Dixon avenge his older bro's ugly end? Will the One Eyed Gov return for more psychopathery? A renewed frenzy — watching, rewatching, guessing, analyzing, an inescapable barrage — will commence.
Just as it does for Game of Thrones and Homeland and Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire and Scandal and Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards and True Blood and The Good Wife and American Horror Story.
What we watch — and how we watch it — is one of the ways we define ourselves in these curious TV times. And what we don't watch also affects our self-regard: as outsiders, as mere others.
Those who watch crow; those who don't cower.
You don't watch Downton Abbey? What's wrong with you?!
Nothing is wrong with you, of course. Nothing at all.
As long as you watch Mad Men, that is.
How did we get this way?
Blame TiVo and Netflix and YouTube, three ways, among myriad, in which inhales of your favorite shows can be consumed whenever you desire them.
Nom nom nom.
"(It's) very possible we wouldn't have made it to 62 episodes without this creation of these technologies and this cultural creation of binge-watching," Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan told Wired magazine. "Under the old paradigm — using old technology of simply having first runs and then reruns on networks — I don't know that we would've reached the critical mass that we reached."
Netflix, and the speedy streaming of TV shows it provides, now accounts for "nearly a third of North American broadband traffic," according to one industry report. It's like mainlining, drug metaphor fully intended. A fast, easy, sleazy hit. Former Walking Dead producer Glen Mazzara told one website that "most cable shows . . . hold up better" thanks to that constant feeding.
Of course he said that! March's Walking Dead Season 3 finale scored 12.3 million viewers, the No. 1 show on TV — broadcast or cable — among the coveted 18-49 age demographic. Its audience continues to grow, too.
No longer is TV show chatter solely juiced by hair-salon copies of People magazine or TV dinner episodes of Entertainment Tonight. An endless discussion of any and all shows — follow the bouncing #hashtags — is available 24/7 on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The watercooler has been digitized. It's like "Who shot J.R.?" (ask your parents) gone steroidal, tendrils of obsession snaking in all directions.
You could try to avoid it.
Or you could just give in.
And then, of course, there's the ultimate reason for this: the high level of creative content itself. If these shows weren't so good to begin with, we wouldn't be so hooked. It's different than our love for American Idol or Dancing With the Stars or The Voice, reality game shows with large audiences but ephemeral heft. They are fun but they are frivolous. We are bystanders there, smirking above it all.
However, the Golden Age of Television — that's what they're calling this joyous virus — is a whole different level of emotion.
When we look at Mad Men's Don Draper or Downton Abbey's Lady Mary Crawley or Orange Is the New Black's Piper, we see ourselves — or at least see people who so dazzle us their very being defines our very being.
So blame the producers and directors too of course, an all-world assortment of throbbing brains who have concocted such fiendishly addictive characters.
All of it boils down to something most of us crave but rarely grasp: absolute control.
Control of the TV remote.
Control of the conversation.
Control of our identities.
And control to change those same identities with a midnight trip to Netflix.
What do you watch?
In 2013, that question is not too different from this one:
Who are you?
Listen, I'm not getting into deep psychobabble here. Walking Dead is often a captivating show, but for all the the-monsters-are-us themes, it's just a form of groovy entertainment with greasy grimy zombie guts.
What's so fascinating about this movement is how prevalently these shows effects us.
Case in point: I'm a Walking Dead guy. I love it and hate it with equal brio. Last year my girlfriend and I went to Atlanta for a DIY tour of locations. I'd never loved a show like that: an appeal to the fatalist in me.
And then, I watched my first episode of Breaking Bad.
I hadn't peeped a minute of the tragicomedy before two weeks ago. I was proud of that fact. But as a writer of pop culture, I was taken to task for not imbibing a show that rewired pop culture.
So I gave in.
I'm almost done with Season 2, gobbling up the Netflix supply of Blu-ray DVDs and streaming episodes like a junkie. After each new hour devoured, I spiral down the rabbit hole of the Internet and spend more hours searching out secrets and clues and slobbery fan chatter. I bother my Breaking Bad-savvy workmates — who have moved on to Orange Is the New Black.
I'm planning a trip to Albuquerque to gawk at Jesse's aunt's place, to eat at the Dog House.
I'm a Breaking Bad guy now, more in touch with my inner-angsty suburbanite than my inner-zombie apocalypse survivor. I am a man reborn!
There will be more of these seductions, of course, and more ways to ingest them. And we will be helpless to resist the pull.
This is life in our static-free world. The show never ends.
What do you watch?
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.