Please watch ‘Breaking Bad’

Lost was winter break of my first year.

How I Met Your Mother was winter break of my second year.

And this winter break was all about Breaking Bad. 

It goes without saying (and yet I will say it) that Breaking Bad is easily–no question–the best of this sporadic ensemble of television shows. Heck, Grantland even argues that it’s the greatest drama in television history, and it just might be.

Sad sack Walter White (played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, who acted on that one TV show for a few years–yeah he’s so good, you forget he ever did comedy), is an overqualified high school chemistry teacher living in Albuquerque, New Mexico who finds out he has stage three lung cancer. It’s a heavy blow considering his circumstances–unexpectedly pregnant wife, handicapped son.  After years of living quietly, humiliatingly by the rules, Walter, as the show’s titles says, breaks bad. A chance encounter with a wayward former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), inspires Walt to give this crystal meth cooking business a try. And so the story goes from there.

I went into Breaking Bad knowing nothing, absolutely nothing, except that my sister had raved about it. I clicked on the pilot on good ole Netflix and the first minute was enough to grab me, hook, line and sinker(?, is that how the cliche goes?)

Please,  watch the opening scene of the pilot. (AMC so kindly put the whole thing up on YouTube.)

The slow fade-in to the cactus plant.  The cut to a cerulean sky. Watch as slowly, beautifully, like it’s dancing, a pair of pants fall onto the ground. A rattling RV runs right over it. Cut to the interior of the van, a middle-aged man in his whiteytighies, gas mask over his face, drives frantically.

Oh my gosh.

How are you not hooked?

Everyone that talks about Breaking Bad, (and apparently, that’s not that too many people. The inferior Mad Men gets all the glory, while Breaking Bad quietly kicks its butt on the sidelines), talks about the same things. There’s the cinematography– haunting, evocative, beautiful, eerie, ominous, pick your choice of adjective. There’s Bryan Cranston, who’s tied with (of all random people) Bill Cosby for the most Emmy wins for a leading dramatic performance (3).  There’s the fastiduous attention to detail. Every innocuous cinematic linger on a note, a plant, a book–it matters. There are the characters, so memorable, from the two murderous Mexican brothers, to Gale Bettincher, nerdy chemistry ingenue, to the steely, never- to- be repeated TV villain great, Gustavo Fring, played with unnerving zen by Giancarlo Esposito. These characters feel so real in a way Mad Men never did. (Yes, there will be some Mad Men hating, as much as I do like the show.)

What’s most daring about Breaking Bad though is its willingness to risk losing the audience’s sympathy. American anti-heroes are notoriously likeable. They have to be. There’s a reason why Michael Scott is a walk in the park compared to David Brent. There’s a reason why Robin Hood-esque tales are always go-to genres for Hollywood blockbusters. Americans, some old white guys in Hollywood have reasoned, must always like the main character of any TV series, whether it’s Grey’s Anatomy or The Sopranos. It doesn’t matter if the viewer actually likes them or not, (did anyone like Meredith Grey, even when the show was watchable?) but there has to be some hold, some attraction, some seed of decency.

The evolution of Walter White, from desperate meth-making naif to cold-blooded, manipulative drug-lord slayer is all the more formidable then, as we watch Walter cross the moral line, over and over and over again. And there are consequences for these actions as both the New York Times magazine piece and Chuck Klosterman explain.

Watching Breaking Bad is not fun. It is stressful. It is the most stressful television show I have ever watched in all my TV watching days. As Julie Powell would say, I watch Breaking Bad through a lattice made of my own fingers. I never used to talk to my computer screen, but I do when I watch Breaking Bad.

“No!” “Don’t do it!” “You’re stupid!” “Oh my gosh!” are frequent exclamations.

Breaking Bad is hypnotic television-making. It stays with you. Please watch.

*One day I will write a post about why it seems like the greatest TV dramas tend to have so much violence.

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