Breaking Bad's Hard-Earned, Heartwarming Emmys Win

True Detective's loss hinted that, for now, movie-style slickness and stars don't trump six years of storytelling. 

Mike Blake/Reuters

"The 2014 Emmys: When a five-time winner beating a movie star is the biggest upset of the night." So wrote Grantland's Andy Greenwald on Twitter, referring to Bryan Cranston's victory over Matthew McConaughey for best lead actor in a drama. Famous guy beats ultra-famous guy: an outcome that's not exactly, to use a term often applied to both Breaking Bad and True Detective, mindblowing.

But there was something a little mindblowing to the mere fact that any suspense surrounded Breaking Bad's nominations heading into Monday's ceremonies. A little less than a year ago, pop culture seemed to unite in awe for a few weeks as AMC's show completed its final half-season. Barguments were had over whether it was the greatest show of all time; the notion of anything else seriously challenging it in the awards year to come seemed faint.

Then in January, True Detective arrived.

It was, by many measures, an experiment: one sole writer and one sole director handling a self-contained run of eight episodes. But in retrospect, it was also a pretty sure bet: two hugely magnetic movie stars, financial support and knowhow from the prestige-TV heavyweight HBO, and the most tested dramatic genre there is—cops. (Last night, Seth Meyers noted that the last time the Emmys happened on a Monday, 1976, every nominee for best drama was about police.)

True Detective quickly did exactly what HBO needs its shows to do, draw buzz. Four episodes in, and Christopher Orr here at The Atlantic wondered whether it was the best thing on TV. He wasn't alone, and for good reason. True Detective was extremely well made, boasting indelible characters, a hint of mystery, and cinematic flair previously unseen in the medium.

At this year's Emmys, it was clear that the show had shaken up the TV world a little bit. Jimmy Kimmel went on an extended joking-but-was-he-really tirade against Matthew McConaughey, saying that he's too good-looking for TV, that we were tired of his speeches, that he was, in essence, crashing the party and expecting to be rewarded.

Replace McConaughey's name with the show he represented—and cut the weed references—and the substance of Kimmel's rant would have still made sense. True Detective had arrived fully formed and built to win awards, bringing Oscar-level talent, a presumption of significance, and a hunger that no show ever had. Its impact was blockbuster-like. Even the memory of its underwhelming finale has faded, replaced by deafening casting speculation not unlike that which usually surrounds, say, an upcoming Marvel-movie installment.

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, was a distinctly TV-ish story of success in increments. It started small and obscure, a gamble from a network trying to prove itself, featuring TV character actors and TV writers-room deputies, forced to make TV-budget compromises as it fought, season after season, a sense of toiling in obscurity. When it blew up, it was in part because of evangelism from viewers who'd lived with the Whites and their associates for so long, watching characters evolve and make hard choices. Movies don't do that—they make one concentrated bid for your consciousness instead of slowly carving out a space.

You could see the payoff to the Breaking Bad style of storytelling in the acceptance speeches from its team (it won best drama, lead actor, lead actress, supporting actor, and writing for the episode "Ozymandias"). Cranston, Anna Gunn, and Aaron Paul all accepted their acting trophies with a teary grin, talking about the "intimate" environment that had developed on set, the steady and gentle hand of show creator Vince Gilligan, and the love—yes, love, invoked multiple times by multiple actors—between all involved. That True Detective director Cary Joji Fukunaga's speech didn't mention his cast nor show creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto—with whom he reportedly clashed on set, and with whom he won't be working next season—only adds to the feeling of Bad's win being a scrappy, hard-earned, communal triumph over an imperious, well-funded newcomer.

With Bad off the air and its AMC contemporary Mad Men set to leave soon too, the future of TV will be shaped in part by True Detective and others like it. Fargo and American Horror Story were other big dramatic winners on Monday night; like True Detective, they are limited-run, rotating-cast series that more easily allow networks to lure established talents and thereby attention (they, unlike True Detective, were sensibly submitted in the miniseries category). Those shows are cool, but they provide something fundamentally different from the slow-burning, deeply satisfying pleasures of Breaking Bad—and so much of TV.