Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More like Breaking Good, am I right?

Hey, shocker, Breaking Bad is a good show.  I am not the first person to say this, obviously; I am saying it this late in the game because for a while I was like most people who have not yet seen it.  You have likely absorbed some kind of message from the collective unconscious/your favorite social media outlet/whatever TV reviews you may or may not be reading that let you know before this point that Breaking Bad is incredible, and you should be watching it.  And, like me, you probably thought, "I'll get around to it, God, stop hassling me."

I think I resisted because it's often mentioned in the same breath as The Wire and The Sopranos and Mad Men when people talk about the greatest TV shows of all time and I get defensive when people talk about things being better than The Wire, objectively the best thing that humankind has ever or will ever create.  Obviously I'm being hyperbolic, since the best of whatever is always fluid and ultimately personal, and new things are being created all the time that build on the successes of the previous 'bests' (David Simon, in interviews, talks about both The Sopranos and Oz as precursors to The Wire, and I've read any number of interviews with current show runners that cite The Wire as influences; as an example from a different medium, countless bands have been influenced by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, to the point where my spellchecker no longer recognizes Beatles as a misspelling).  But eventually my defensiveness was broken down (and my lady friend's desire also to watch, possibly partly due to her familiarity with Bryan Cranston's previous work on Malcolm in the Middle, certainly aided my decision) and I'm glad it was, because it really is an extraordinary show.

I want...all the Emmys.
It also couldn't be more different in terms of scope.  I've only gotten through the first season of BB, but given that the elevator pitch for the show is, "high school chemistry teacher has likely-fatal cancer, starts cooking meth to make money for family, turns from Mr. Chips to Scarface," I feel like it's pretty safe to say that there will be at least a moderate exploration of the criminal underbelly of Albuquerque.  However, even though that exploration may mirror the portrayal of Baltimore's criminal underclass in The Wire the point of view is focused much tighter in Breaking BadThe Wire is textbook ensemble; season one has ostensible POV characters in McNulty and D'Angelo, but even here the scope is so wide that we need two instead of just one, and the multiple members of the Barksdale organization, the surveillance detail, not to mention Omar...The Wire's season one ensemble dwarfs Breaking Bad's by far, and this is before the per-season widening of scope.  This isn't a negative, merely a point of comparison.  The Wire is concerned with society and its institutions and "how we live together in cities."  Breaking Bad is concerned with one man, Walter White.  We don't quite get to the level of only seeing what he sees, but we only see things that are within his immediate orbit; his wife, his brother-in-law, his son, his cooking partner.

The two shows do share something that is, lamentably, absent from a lot of television and from a lot of media in general, really, and that is subtlety and an awareness of subtext.  One might look at the premise of Breaking Bad and ask 'why meth' and the way the show answers this question over the first seven episodes (at the end of which Walter is firmly embedded in his new world) is largely indirect.  We never get any extended monologues talking about Walter's pride, but we infer it through the information presented; we read between the lines, and his actions become explicable.

The show reminds me, in an odd way, of Weeds, another show about a "normal" person who suffers tragedy and turns to the easy money of drug dealing.  The difference is a) Nancy Botwin, our protagonist played by Mary-Louise Parker, doesn't have cancer, but her husband dies pre-series beginning, lending a somewhat more immediate necessity to her new career path, b) the drug in question is weed, not meth, and c) Weeds isn't very good.  There are a couple reasons why.  I think MLP is a fine actress and she's certainly the best thing on the show (although from the few episodes I watched it was pretty clear that Kevin Nealon is doing the finest work of his career on that show) but while Botwin : Weeds :: White : Breaking Bad, the quality of the writing on the former show just isn't of the caliber of the writing on the latter.  We don't get to see Nancy's tragedy up-close and personal like we do with Walt; instead, we're kept at a remove, since the characterization of her husband largely left to flashbacks and we don't see her reaction to the event as it happened (we see her coping with it, but that's not the same thing, and this relies on our abstractly understanding and empathizing with someone losing a loved one; contrast with Walt, who we see working himself into exhaustion at two jobs to support a pregnant wife and a son with cerebral palsy before we see him get the fatal diagnosis.  It's a very specific tragedy that happens to a very specific person that we experience along with him, and so we're along for his ride, unless, to quote Lewis Black, you're a fucking deaf and dumb pig.).  Parker does her best with what she's given, but in her case she elevates average material to something approaching good through craft and charisma, whereas Cranston, because he's working with A-grade material, is able to both elevate and be elevated by it, and the results are a performance that has won him three Emmys (clearly payback for being nominated but not winning for Hal on Malcolm).

Look at this face. Doesn't it deserve a better show?
There's also the difference in setting, and the class implied by that setting.  Weeds is dealing with the financial difficulties that a single mother with two kids has to endure after her husband dies.  This is, so far, a concept divorced from class or economic status.  But the show is set in a suburb which we are meant to believe is as cookie-cutter as can be, judging from the opening credits, and we are solidly in the middle, if not upper-middle, class.  Nancy is placed as something of an outsider not only because she is a clandestine drug dealer but because she's, well, Mary-Louise Parker, who by virtue of her dry wit and sarcastic nature is not going to be someone who can easily fit into a place like this.  It begs the question of why she doesn't sell the house and leave.  She has a maid who is as much a part of the family as a maid can reasonably be, but we're given no plausible reason why Nancy has been driven to dealing drugs as opposed to making the decision 99% of us would probably make and fire the fucking maid.  The 99% figure isn't coincidental, as the show very much feels like a show created for and by people further up on the socio-economic ladder, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that it creates relatability problems for a show that didn't need those in addition to its others.

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is firmly placed in the lower-middle class.  Walt's family is struggling.  The phone company calls about unpaid bills, they have a credit card they don't use because of being behind on the payments, Walt has to make sure the cancer treatment center waits until Monday to cash his checks.  The creation myth of the show goes that Vince Gilligan, creator and show runner, had the script in his pocket for a number of years, but it went on the air in 2008 in the midst of the housing crisis and given the world's economic problems the show feels both contemporary and instantly relatable.  Now, Walt is a very specific person in a very specific circumstance with his own specific pathologies and eccentricities that lead him to choose cooking meth to make that money he so desperately needs to ensure his and his family's security, but the factors driving him to that decision are universal; fear of death, fear of poverty, fear for his family.  We might not make the same choices as Walt, but we can understand why he does.  And this is true for every step of his journey (or at least, that I've seen, one season and change in).  This is where, again, The Wire and Breaking Bad share common ground; each is concerned with presenting people who make choices we might not make and making us understand why, in their particular contexts, these are the only choices these people could make.  They are specific and they are universal, without contradiction.  To me, that's almost a working definition of art; something that only one particular person or one group of people could make at one particular time in one particular place that can be understood by anyone at any time in any place.


  1. I have a bad feeling that there is TV viewing in my future.

  2. BB is a good show, somewhat violent now and apparently more-so later (but probably less disturbing than reading A Game of Thrones, which I have more or less given up on since those books are just too rapey and outright sadistic).