I didn’t start watching “Breaking Bad” until last summer. I’d heard from the beginning how good the show was, and I even watched the pilot when it aired. But as so often happens, I got distracted and didn’t keep up with it. I caught up with the series’ first three seasons in the weeks before the fourth season premiered, which let me watch new episodes week to week. I love the show and think it’s one of the best of the many amazing series of TV’s modern renaissance, but the show’s quality and my feelings toward it have nothing to do with when I saw it.
Yet when people discover major ongoing series like “Breaking Bad” before they’ve ended their run, there’s a tendency to talk about “finally” catching up. Matt Dentler tweeted about catching up with the show before its current season premiered by saying he was a “late-to-the-party bandwagon jumper.” Announcements like this are laced with low-level guilt, as if not seeing the show before now was somehow a crime against art.
This is one of the many negative effects of the rise of “First!” culture: the attitude that enjoying a good TV show isn’t as important as enjoying it right now, as soon as possible, with everyone else, every week, so you can talk about all the time. This doesn’t happen as much with movies, even though they’re just as much a communal experience that unites us by what we choose to see together. That’s because movies are singular experiences, and surprise that someone hasn’t seen a popular movie is limited to two hours of entertainment. An ongoing series like “Breaking Bad” means a years-long commitment to a story, and when it reaches the level of critical and viewer acclaim that “Breaking Bad” has, the show’s fans can all too easily transition from preaching the series’ virtues to scolding those who aren’t in the know already.
There’s a pretty obvious drawback to the belief that you have to be watching the next big thing right as it airs: There’s always something new to watch, and you can’t make up for the series you missed when you were younger or just out of the loop. “Breaking Bad” is a fantastic show, and I love watching it week to week and talking about it with my friends, but if I didn’t wind up catching the show until five years after it ended, it would still be amazing. My watching it now has nothing to do with how good it is. My attention, though valued by the network and the series’ creators, does not make the show better. The show exists apart from me. I can do nothing but watch it and enjoy, whether that means being there from the first season or catching them in a marathon a decade after it sails into history.
I didn’t see “The Wire” until it was on DVD. I still haven’t seen “The Sopranos.” I watched “Sports Night” and “Freaks and Geeks” live as they aired. I just got into “Twin Peaks” a month ago. I started “Friday Night Lights” on DVD after the first season. Same with “Veronica Mars.” I’ve been with “Justified” since the first episode. The only thing that matters in all those experiences is that I’ve had them. It doesn’t give me street cred to brag about watching a show live from the get-go, or to chide those who haven’t. The only thing worth talking about is the art.