It’s the finest television programme you’ve never seen – probably. A series so good that film director Mike Nichols compares it to Tolstoy. Among its obsessive fans are Samuel L Jackson, Keith Richards, Jon Hamm, Gary Oldman, Bret Easton Ellis, Jennifer Aniston, Ron Howard and Salman Rushdie. It’s just won the Emmy for best drama series, beating Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Homeland and House of Cards. The name of this critically acclaimed, award-winning show is Breaking Bad and, apart from brief appearances of early series on the satellite channels Fox and 5USA four or five years ago, British audiences haven’t been able to watch it on television.
Its cult status here is entirely down to fans telling their friends to buy it on DVD box set or, a more recent option, subscribing to the internet streaming service Netflix, where it has been powering towards its climax with episodes “dropping” weekly.
There will be no series six, so the series-five finale, which became available on 30 September, seals the fate of Walter White, the erstwhile New Mexico school chemistry teacher who, on turning 50 and following a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, began “cooking” the highly addictive illegal drug crystal meth to fund his medical bills and secure his family’s financial future.
But it never worked out quite like that and since then we’ve watched Walter lie to virtually everyone, take on a Mexican drug cartel and strive to become the biggest drug supplier in America’s Wild West.
Bryan Cranston, previously known for playing put-upon dad Hal in family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, stars as Walter and has won drama’s best actor Emmy three consecutive times. He tells RT the show has succeeded because it is fundamentally truthful, despite its extreme- sounding premise.
“It’s the depiction of a man’s decision-making that quite frankly could be relatable to the plight of many a person regardless of where they’re from. Here’s a man who has his familial responsibilities, and they’re challenged. His own life is imminently ending; he wants to be remembered for something.”
Series creator Vince Gilligan sees the show as “essentially a modern-day western”, a vision realised by the breathtaking landscape of the Old West around Albuquerque, where it is shot. Gilligan admits, however, that this was a happy accident: it was initially chosen purely because New Mexico was offering tax breaks at the time.
But why is Breaking Bad so addictive? It has the ability to mix high, almost operatic melodrama with nuanced portraits of believable relationships. Chief among these are the exchanges between Walter and his wife Skyler, who deduces what her husband is up to and becomes a reluctant accomplice. As Skyler, Anna Gunn won this year’s Emmy for best supporting actress in a drama series.
Like another box-set favourite, HBO’s The Wire, this is a series that forces you to think about the world you live in. When did Walter “break bad”? When he first started cooking drugs to make money – or when he committed his first murder? Why do so many viewers still want the best for a character who does so many terrible things?
On the first question at least, Bryan Cranston is clear: “It was the first episode, when Walter made a conscious intellectual decision to change who he was, to gain financially by making drugs. He sold his soul to the devil.”
Vince Gilligan, too, seems to have little affection for his extraordinary creation: “Walter is a character who, if you dig just a little beneath that prideful surface, is a very damaged individual who has reduced feelings of self-worth, although he’d be the last person to admit that. He’s a character who lies to and betrays his family so much that I find him hard to sympathise with.”
Some fans will disagree, and will still be rooting for Walter right up to the end. “Some will feel there is a catharsis,” says Gilligan. Cranston adds: “The ending of Breaking Bad is very unapologetic and appropriate and exciting. It’s a rollercoaster ride.”
There will be life of sorts beyond Breaking Bad now the ride has stopped. Gilligan has high hopes for a spin-off series – starring the show’s brilliantly charismatic lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) – called Better Call Saul. And the cast have all become hot properties among the Hollywood elite.
“For every single person who worked on that show, it’s been a boost,” says Dean Norris, who plays Hank, a drug enforcement police offer and Walter’s brother-in-law, and can be seen on Channel 5 in the American science-fiction series Under the Dome. “It’s always been a show that has been well respected in the business. Almost instantaneously it gives you a higher level of offers.”
In the US, Breaking Bad airs on AMC, the cable network that brought us Mad Men – but even in the States, Gilligan says that viewing on Netflix has been crucial to its continued success. “I don’t think our show would have even lasted beyond season two,” he said after the show’s recent wins at the Emmys. “It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”
Dean Norris is confident that this method of viewing, where new devotees arrive in their own time, means we will still be talking about Breaking Bad in years to come. “The thing about the show, and services like Netflix and iTunes, is that new generations will still be able to discover that show in the future. I imagine some kids going to college and binge-watching it together, smoking a bong...” Not that the man playing a drug cop would ever promote that sort of thing, of course. But he’s right all the same.
Breaking Bad series 1 to 5 are available in full for Netflix subscribers. Episodes can be bought on iTunes and Blinkbox
THE BEST SHOWS NOT ON TV
Orange is the New Black, Netflix
This brilliant comedy drama by the creator of Weeds is set in a women’s prison: a place of black, Catch-22 comedy, and much sympathy for its diverse cast of oddballs. Taylor Schilling stars.
A hit on BBC America, this period police drama is set in New York in the 1860s and follows a cop trying to crack the case of his own murdered daughter and missing wife.
Like Game of Thrones? Try this less accomplished but still enjoyable Norse epic. There’s less sex and death, and more character-driven drama, than you might expect.