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.|
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?|
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.