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Monday, February 16, 2015

February 16, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Breaking Bad

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On why the highly acclaimed show and I aren’t on the same page.
I know I’m in danger of losing my AmericanStudier card with this post, or at least losing the respect of a lot of the people whose opinions on TV and culture I greatly value. And to be clear, I’m not going to argue that Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s groundbreaking show about the gradual descent of a high school chemistry teacher into a life of drug-dealing, crime, and mayhem (a transformation, as Gilligan pitched it to AMC, “from Mr. Chips to Scarface”), wasn’t as well-made and –executed as everyone (including my favorite TV reviewer of all time) says it is. Indeed, from the couple of seasons that I’ve watched (I stopped at a certain point, for the reasons I’ll get to in a moment), I would agree that Breaking Bad was as well-acted, -written, and –directed as anything I’ve seen on TV, and represented a very unique twist on the anti-hero protagonist trend for sure.
Part of what make me and Breaking Bad not quite simpatico is as simple as that anti-hero trend, I suppose. Despite writing that linked post and the rest of a week’s series on House of Cards, for example, by the end of that current show’s second season I found myself much more frustrated than entertained by how thoroughly evil is its protagonist Frank Underwood—and yet how much the show expects and requires us to root for Frank nonetheless. That last part is my real problem with such anti-hero protagonists—that in many cases, including both Frank Underwood and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the audience is asked to root for them not as they strive for something better (which I would say of, for example, The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, even if he consistently fails in that pursuit), but instead in the depths of their anti-heroic and even evil activities. I can’t say for sure if Gilligan intended that effect, and the show’s eventually tragic ending would seem to argue that he didn’t; but I know that many of the responses to the show over the course of its run emphasized how “bad-ass” was the Scarface version of Walter White.
So the concept of a bad-ass bad guy as protagonist doesn’t speak to this optimistic AmericanStudier, no. But what about the overall arc, that Mr. Chips to Scarface transformation? After all, two of my favorite American films are The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2, and a significant plot and thematic thread across both films is the transformation of good guys into bad (whether that’s Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in both films or Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone in the second film’s flashback sequences). Yet the same fundamental frame, when executed in a TV show, is far less compelling to me. And in analyzing that contrast, I would have to say that it boils down in many ways to generic differences between film and TV: the ways in which a two-hour film (or rather a few key scenes within it) can tell a particular kind of story, vs. the choices entailed in telling the same story across dozens of episodes in multiple seasons of a TV show. A good argument for how closely tied form is to content, and how much the former informs the way we experience and enjoy—or don’t enjoy—the latter.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?


  1. I'm going to offer some advice on viewing Breaking Bad with a different perspective, as I would love nothing more than for you, or anyone else I know, to enjoy the show as much as I do.

    Basically, the series utilizes each season to slowly descend Walt into pure villainy, with each season roughly broken down as:

    Season One: Walt is sympathetic because he's like the human embodiment of a sad puppy, and he's just trying to make money for his family before the lung cancer completely overtakes him.

    Season Two: Walt starts to be less sympathetic, especially by the end, and the viewer starts to question how far this man is willing to go.

    Season Three: A balance of sympathy and anger towards Walt. His actions start to portray a man who is descending into evil, but the audience can still remember the man who's impending death is causing all of this drama.

    Season Four: Much less sympathetic than ever, and at this point, the show turns into a character study of Walt and how his actions will affect the plot.

    Season Five: Pure evil. Walt (and to a greater extent, the show), in the words of a major character, become a ticking time bomb. It's like watching a car crash; everything that occurs is more horrible by the second, but you can't look away. The last few episodes twist this pattern, but that's the exception to end the series.

    So halfway through the show, the audience should start to feel like Walt's behavior is morally reprehensible, but hopefully, viewers will be invested enough in Walt's background to at least be interested in where he's going. Essentially, you're not supposed to like or dislike him, fully, after a while. Once his character becomes unlikeable, the audience should be invested in the show, not just Walter. It's not about rooting for Walt to succeed, but to see how these characters will be affected by the mess he's created. I think people refer to Walt's actions as "badass" because they can remember the downtrodden chemistry teacher from season one, and connect with the imagery of this man refusing to take shit from anyone. The brilliance of the show, though, lies in the slow conversion from rooting for Walt into fascination of how everything will come crashing down.

  2. Thanks, Joe! I'll try to re-watch some time with this perspective in mind.