Sunday, 15 September 2013

TV5: Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad has become one of the most popular TV shows of all-time, highly acclaimed by both the critics and the masses. I have found few people who share my misgivings about the show and many who challenge my views (as seen in the comments responding to my previous mentions of the show). 
I was prompted to write this review after an opportunity to discuss Breaking Bad with Gareth Higgins at Greenbelt (where I also had the chance to talk film and TV with Hazel, Jeremy and Ian, three of my other UK film-buff friends). Gareth is another huge fan of the show and he made some persuasive arguments, so I picked up the first half of the fifth season in London (where I could already find it used for $20) and watched it in three days last weekend.
As I have said before, I have no complaints about the quality of Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston is phenomenal as Walter White, the protagonist (a high school chemistry teacher who turns to the production of crystal meth to provide support for his family after he is diagnosed with cancer). His performance and the character he plays will be long remembered as one of the definitive roles in television, and deservedly so. Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s sidekick, is equally deserving of praise and I have only good things to say about the rest of the cast. Meanwhile, the writing is intelligent and tight, with one gripping screenplay after another, the cinematography is brilliant and the direction is as good as anything you will see on TV. So I agree that it is one of the most compelling shows on TV, which is why I watched the first 54 episodes of Breaking Bad in a total of 12 days (over three separate time periods). 
And yet, there is a part of me that remains skeptical about the acclaim Breaking Bad has received (i.e. I can’t help feeling that this show is overrated). It seems to have universal appeal, but I would hesitate to recommend it to others without a number of warnings. This can’t help but make me wonder whether Breaking Bad isn’t largely a guilty pleasure. Having said that, I did find the first eight episodes of the fifth season to be generally more thoughtful than the first four seasons, particularly from a moral standpoint. (BTW, I find it ridiculous that season five is divided into two parts when these parts are shown a year apart; the final season should be called the sixth season). Walter and Jesse finally have some serious (and fascinating) discussions about the morality of drug production and the violence that accompanies it. As Gareth said, Jesse consistently represents the show’s conscience. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, has been quoted as saying that Breaking Bad is about the consequences of making poor moral choices. This sounds like a spoiler, indicating that Walter will get his comeuppance at the end of the series. If the consequences Gilligan is referring to mean punishment in the form of prison or death, I will not be impressed. Nor am I impressed by such a succinct description of the show (one of my complaints about Breaking Bad is that it generally has a narrow, limited, simplistic, superficial focus in its plot constructions). 
I grow increasingly tired of films and television shows that depict retributive justice as a positive thing, as if we all know that such justice is good and required for a society to operate effectively. I challenge that assumption. Despite my lack of sympathy for Walter (something I have previously mentioned as one reason I find this show less compelling than Dexter), I will not be relieved or satisfied if he gets his just deserts in the end. Nor would I be relieved or satisfied if he gets away with his crimes. Justice to me has nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of punishment or just deserts. What is needed is restorative justice that restores right relationships by allowing victims to confront offenders and truly allows offenders to experience the consequences of their actions.
Another quote I have read about Breaking Bad is that it is “a feel-good show about feeling bad.”  Perhaps that refers to the dark humour lurking in the background as we watch Walter’s descent into evil. Or maybe it refers, like Dexter, to the shadow side in each of us. This leads me back to my need to sympathize with TV characters, something I have found difficult on Breaking Bad. I have heard that I would experience similar difficulties with another popular cable TV show called The Walking Dead, a show I will probably never watch because of my aversion to all things ‘zombie’. Zombie films frequently draw attention to the dark side in each of us. Sure it’s important to be reminded that we are all human, that we are all in some ways broken and selfish, and it is helpful to watch others struggle with this. But what we need to see more of in films and TV is not how flawed we all are but how good and beautiful we all are. Network TV shows like Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven and even Star Trek may be hokey but they are grounded in the goodness of people and regularly contribute to helping people think about how they can make the world a better place (Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons are other classic examples). Cable TV may be more authentic, intelligent, nuanced and thoughtful, but what are shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter and The Walking Dead (not to mention Boardwalk Empire, which is coming up soon) really contributing to?
In conclusion: Yes, Breaking Bad is superior compelling TV which gets a solid ***+, but this should not be viewed as a blanket recommendation. If you haven’t seen it and you are not put off by dark, hard-edged violent entertainment, then by all means check it out. But it’s certainly not for everyone. 
Note: Probably because of the network that distributes Breaking Bad (AMC), you will find very little sex or extreme language on the show. I call this semi-cable TV. You will, however, find all kinds of graphic violence, because we all know it’s okay for our kids to watch graphic violence so long as they are not exposed to breasts or the F-word!


  1. Breaking bad is my favourite tv show of all time-have just watched series 5 episode 14 and it was the most astonishing 45 minutes of tv I've ever seen-better even than the 'pine barrens' episode of The Sopranos.Used to like Dexter-but it has gone downhill so badly in series 8 that I don't think I'll bother watching the final 4 episodes.It's a classic case of good tv being ruined by not knowing when to say 'enough'!Have you managed to see Danish political series 'Borgen' that I recommended to you about 6 months ago?

  2. Thanks for this. Because of your recommendation, I acquired the first two season of Borgen during my recent trip to London. I am planning to watch them in the very near future (i.e. right after I finish the latest seasons of Homeland and Boardwalk Empire).