This may be the last column on earth to praise the television series Breaking Bad, but hey, The Secret History of Art lives in the wilds of Europe, so things reach us a bit more slowly. That may not be a bad thing. I had not even heard of Breaking Bad before I received the first three seasons on DVD as a gift, so I felt none of the peer pressure to love the series, which as one magazine put it, has been “critically fellated.” To say that the show has been critically-acclaimed is the understatement of the century, but you know what? It is 100% deserved. This is the best show that has ever run on television.
I was struck with how great the series is from the opening moments of the first episode, which really has to grab you by the throat in this era of quantity over quality television. Having worked for years with TV production companies on documentary and drama projects, I know just how much effort goes into developing a new show. Literally thousands are developed every year for just a handful of slots. Networks tend to prefer reality shows because they are so much cheaper to make than any other type of programming. You just need cameras, editors, and real people, who are paid a tiny fraction of what professionals would be paid, if they are paid at all. You can see just how uncomplicated reality series are by scanning the credits. Even top-drawer shows with marketable presenters, like Ultimate Survival and No Reservations feature about four or five crew members and a presenter, plus the folks who edit and produce from back home. Reality shows like The Real World and its offspring offer a large cast of characters, none of whom are professional actors. This trend makes it that much more special when a series like Breaking Bad takes the time to create high-quality, intelligent, absorbing, novelistic, filmic television. It strikes us all the more because it is so well-done, well-written, and detailed. It is such a sharp contrast to the majority of inexpensive space-filler that is contemporary television that we welcome it with a ravenous hunger.
The era of high-end television in the United States is relatively new. We learned it from Britain, where top-drawer drama series have been the norm for decades. Go back to BBC series like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (starring Alec Guinness) and you’ll find character-driven drama which, it must be said, feels very slow and ponderous now, compared to the quick-edit thrillers we’re used to, but which is highly intelligent, assumes an intelligent, thoughtful audience, and provides truly three-dimensional characters whom we feel we come to know. In the US The Sopranos seemed to start the trend, providing a New Jersey Mafia drama with darkly comic elements, fully-developed characters, a world into which viewers are carried, and a Greek tragedy superstructure. Twin Peaks came far earlier, but that intrigued without having laid out a definite end point, a solution to the gripping mysteries presented in it—that worked for the first season and into the second, but then it grew dizzying and somewhat frustrating, with the sense that David Lynch didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do, how he wanted to end it, and so it just got weirder. The Wire (which I’ve not seen but is high on my list) is said to have provided the same level of literary entertainment as The Sopranos, but in a grittier, darker, less operatic manner. There are others, but they are relatively few and precious. Networks need to be convinced of the reward, in viewers and critical acclaim, in investing considerable expense in a well-done drama series. And it seems that they have seen the value, which bodes well for the future of television.
Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a meek, middle-aged chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer. To add some spice to his life, he takes up a long-standing offer from his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, to come for a ride-along. The DEA busts a small local Albuquerque crystal meth “cooking” operation, during which Walt sees a former high school student of his, Jesse Pinkman, escape the scene. Looking for an escape from his mid-life crisis, and a way to pay for his cancer treatment, Walt convinces Jesse to teach him about the meth trade. Walt, being a formerly renowned chemist, makes a crystal meth that is purer and far better than anything available on the street, usually made by junkies or untrained “cooks.” His product becomes vaunted and much-desired, by addicts, dealers, and by the DEA, with an investigation led by brother-in-law Hank. And so we are swept into the world of Walter White as he tries to balance his home life, cancer treatment, and secret new career as a drug producer—a sideline that brings empowerment to Walt and also a nasty side that had been bottled up for decades. By Season Three Walt’s cancer has gone, at least temporarily, into remission and his all-or-nothing plan to raise money to support his family after his impending death is suddenly shifted—he now may have to live with his crimes, which by this time include murder.
The first episode begins with an RV hurdling through the bleak, arid New Mexico desert while Walt, in his undies, drives frantically, as if being chased, with two corpses in the back of the van, which is in fact a rolling meth lab. An ingenious feature of the whole series is that prior to the credits we see a small slice of what will happen later in the episode. Other shows, films, and novels have provides some sort of chase or action sequence as a hook pre-credits: every James Bond film begins with a 3-5 minute action sequence before the credits roll. It is not uncommon to begin with a preview of the very end, a la The Usual Suspects. But Breaking Bad disorients as it gives us a random slice from somewhere in the middle of the episode (or in a few cases, a preview of an upcoming episode), and so it simultaneously intrigues us and disorients.
When the episode proper begins, we are drawn into an unearthly world: suburban Albuquerque, which is a bleak set of strip malls abruptly shifting into brutal, flat desert. We come back to each episode to learn what will happen to the characters, characters we grow to feel a strong connection to, even if they are not necessarily likeable. Because the storylines arc over entire seasons, or to be precise after a series like this is optioned for a second season, the writers can prepare for numerous seasons ahead, we are pulled through and impelled to watch more than one episode. Series usually take one of two formats. There is the CSI format, in which characters remain little changed over the course of episodes and seasons, and plotlines fit precisely into the confines of each episode. A crime is committed and solved in each episode, and the consistency of characters is more for the sake of calling the show a series than in creating a meaningful arc of character development. We watch for the plot, not for the characters, and we do not need to watch a season in order. Then there is the character-driven, long-form plot series, like Breaking Bad, where character development, the mark that separates literature from books, is paramount. The fact that the plots are also gripping, with danger, dread, chases, fights, murders, and brilliantly crafted moments of tension are like a drug that keeps us watching while our hearts are with the characters. Breaking Bad is also unafraid to kill off central characters, which makes its viewers uneasy—we always knew that Perry Mason was going to win his legal battle, and we always knew that Hercule Poirot would not die in his investigation. In Breaking Bad we are given no assurances, and so our cheering for lead characters is weighted with the knowledge that things might not end happily because real life does not always end happily. The drama and thrills, for the series is certainly a thriller, are nicely balanced with black comedy. The nearest film example in tone and pace to Breaking Bad is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But Pulp Fiction had to fit everything into one feature film, and so did not have the space to grow characters into a series. The characters were superficially deep, rather than truly deep—we had to be told of their dimensions, rather than shown them over time. But the violence and tension cut by humor is shared in both series, as are the multiple criss-crossing storylines. Though I can’t be certain, it seemed that a pair of characters in Breaking Bad Season Three, Mexican brothers who cross the border to take revenge on their cousin, Tuco, who was killed in Season Two, are a shout-out to Tarantino. They are one-dimensional, badass killing machines. They say exactly two lines in the whole series, while buying bullet-proof vests (“Vests?” and “Do they work?”), and otherwise go on an axe-murdering rampage as they determine to kill Walt. They wear boots with little metal skulls on the toes, and they worship a sort of cultic angel of death surrounded by votive candles. They are caricatures, however badass they may be, two-dimensional characters in a world of three-dimensionalists. They stand out because they are what most TV offers, even the good stuff—without ambiguity, but with a good dose of style, they are mindless killers. But the world into which they step, shiny axe in hand, is one of lush, deep characters.
They seem to me to be an analogy for quality television. When they are vanquished by their three-dimensional counterparts, we see a microcosm of what Breaking Bad is doing to lesser television shows. Now I’ve just got to wait for the Season Four DVD to come out…
Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor of art history. His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa.
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