If you are alive, chances are that you have heard of a TV show called Breaking Bad. You may even have watched it. But that won’t have been easy if you’re a UK resident because even though it’s massive in the US, our broadcasters have largely ignored it.
Now in its fifth and (probably) final season, it has been showered with American awards including seven Emmys and dozens of other major nominations. Over here it has an army of cult followers but not so much as a sniff of a golden envelope. Consider this a call to arms. Let’s dive into the details.
First broadcast on American channel AMC in 2008, Breaking Bad is a superior crime drama that follows the fortunes of high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. His son has cerebral palsy, his wife is pregnant with their second child, he is overqualified for his job, and then he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Faced with leaving his family without financial security, things look bleak. Then fate lends a hand.
Walt’s hilariously gung-ho DEA officer brother-in-law, Hank, offers to take him on a crystal meth raid. Told to wait in the car, Walt witnesses a felon escaping through a window. It turns out to be Jesse Pinkman, one of Walt’s underachieving former students. With his health failing, and desperate to provide for his family, Walt uses his expert knowledge of chemistry and an unlikely partnership with Jesse to embark on a dangerous path into the meth industry.
The appeal of Breaking Bad – the quality that lifts it above lesser TV dramas – is that Walt has extremely questionable morals. At the start he appears to be a mild-mannered, upstanding member of the community. However, as situations worsen he resorts to extreme measures to protect himself and his family. Then the lines begin to blur; does he perhaps enjoy being a criminal? Has the hero become the villain?
I knew the premise of Breaking Bad a while ago, but didn’t start to watch it until I realised that Walt is played by the inimitable Bryan Cranston. Best known for playing patriarchal man-child, Hal, in Malcolm in the Middle, he may seem an unlikely choice for this role. But a creepy turn in an episode of The X-Files convinced producers that he had the unique credentials necessary to play Walt.
Jesse, an endearingly rebellious twenty-something, forms a kind of double act with Walt. His dubious life choices and overuse of the word “yo,” often make you want to slap him in the face for being so stupid. Then he reveals a heart of gold and all is forgiven, until he does the next bad thing. Much of the show’s charm comes from the frustrated teacher/idiotic student relationship that they never quite manage to shake.
An important aspect of Breaking Bad is that it does not condone drug use nor glorify the criminals that surround it. We’re shown every part of the spectrum, from ill-fated gangsters to wretched end-users, and I can tell you there are no winners in the world of crystal meth. This can make the show feel grimy and depressing, but it also makes it believable. Another touchstone of reality is Walt’s long-suffering wife, Skyler. A strong, intelligent woman, Skyler feels she is losing her husband to more than just cancer. It’s her search for the truth that I think is at the heart of the story, at least initially.
Breaking Bad is filled with rich creativity and jet-black humour. Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best characters ever committed to celluloid (it’s filmed on 35mm), from Walt and Jesse themselves to a delightfully crooked lawyer and the most surprisingly ruthless drug lord you’ve ever seen. It would be remiss of me not to mention the outstanding cinematography and music. Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico there are beautiful wide angle shots of scorching desert environments that at times make it look like an art-house film. The soundtrack offers a myriad of musical genres, including an inspired mariachi plot round-up midway through season two.
One reason for its failure over here could be the obscure title. A quick check on UrbanDictionary.com reveals that ‘to break bad’ is to challenge convention, to defy authority and to raise hell. This is certainly an apt description of the show. Walt’s near-total lapse into immorality raises important questions about the human psyche’s ability to deal with the pressures of society, family and self-preservation.
Seasons 1 and 2 were shown so late at night on FX and 5USA that they may as well have been blue movies. Consequently, viewing figures were so low that they scrapped future broadcast plans. This is a gross injustice. At the time of writing the only way to see it is Netflix, iTunes or DVD/Blu-ray. Or you could break bad yourself and obtain it illegally, but I can’t possibly endorse that kind of activity.
Breaking Bad is so amazing that I feel my words can’t do it justice. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, taking you on a calm journey that makes you laugh, cringe and gasp before exploding with aggression out of nowhere. If you don’t watch it you’re missing out.