It’s been called the greatest thing on television, has won Emmys and Golden Globes, been championed by critics around the world and captured the hearts and minds of fans across Britain – but the chances are you’ve never seen it. So, what’s so good about Breaking Bad?
“I think above all it’s honest,” says Bryan Cranston, who plays Walter White, the main protagonist in the story of a high-school Chemistry teacher in New Mexico who turns to a life of crime as a crystal meth kingpin after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. But why is it so compelling? “It’s the depiction of a man’s decision making that could be relatable to the plight of many a person, regardless of where they’re from.
Here’s a man who has his family responsibilities, and they’re challenged. His own life is imminently ending. He wants to be able to do something for his family before he goes. He wants to be remembered for something.” And this is the brilliance of Breaking Bad. Beyond the incredible scripts and cinematography and the career-defining performances from a stellar cast, it manages to tell an outlandish story – framed by an alien world of drug production, warring cartels and murder against the dusty backdrop of Albuquerque – where every minute relates to the viewer in a personal way.
“From the beginning, that’s what we wanted,” says Dean Norris, who plays Hank Schrader, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and Walter White’s brother-in-law. “People would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to watch a story about meth,’ but it’s not really about meth at all. It’s the experiences of a husband and wife, what’s the importance of life and those larger questions framed around that.”
The relationship between White and his wife Skyler, played by Anna Gunn, grounds a fast moving and complex story about a man whose life spirals out of control (and has earned Emmy awards for both Cranston and Gunn). After his cancer diagnosis, White begins cooking crystal meth with his former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in order to secure the future for his wife and two children – one an infant and the other a teenager with cerebral palsy. For five series, no matter what faces him, it is this imperative that drives White on.
“These roles are the roles of our lives – they’ve changed the game for all of us and we’re very, very lucky,” says Paul, the 34-year-old actor who’s spent seven years playing the complex and vulnerable methamphetamine cook, Jesse. But the show has also changed the game for television viewers in the UK. Exiled by the mainstream channels, the series has become a poster child for on-demand television and the power of social media. The result? Breaking Bad is far more than just another television programme, it’s become a cultural phenomenon. Only briefly flirted with by the “traditional channels – the show was picked up and then dropped by both FX and 5USA in its early series before finally disappearing from the schedules altogether – the growing throngs of Breaking Bad fanatics have had to turn to the internet (orDVDs) to get their fix of this most addictive show, spreading word of its brilliance by social media and blogs, and making it one of the most illegally downloaded shows of all time.
Netflix launched into the UK streaming market in 2012 and has since attracted an estimated two million-plus viewers. The show it used as its central marketing vehicle? Breaking Bad. But unlike many American shows that have experienced initial success, cable network AMC (who also make Mad Men) resisted the temptation to milk the show by making umpteen superfluous seasons and allowing Breaking Bad to wither away coughing and spluttering into a unsatisfactory or nonsensical conclusion (yes, I’m looking at you, Lost.) “I knew from the start that Breaking Bad would be a finite run,” says its creator and writer, Vince Gilligan.
“When we got to five [seasons], I didn’t want to press my luck and had to start wrapping it up.” Breaking Bad has one of the best endings Bad. But unlike many American shows that have experienced initial success, cable network AMC (who also make Mad Men) resisted the temptation to milk the show by making umpteen superfluous seasons and allowing Breaking Bad to wither away coughing and spluttering into a unsatisfactory or nonsensical conclusion (yes, I’m looking at you, Lost.) “I knew from the start that Breaking Bad would be a finite run,” says its creator and writer, Vince Gilligan. “When we got to five [seasons], I didn’t want to press my luck and had to start wrapping it up.” Breaking Bad has one of the best endings a drama fan could imagine, as this tale of Shakespearean proportions moves in five short seasons from dark comedy at inception to tragedy of the most intense form by its conclusion.
“When you look at the core of what Shakespeare wrote about,” says Cranston, “it was truly about emotions and how people behaved and felt about each other. That’s what resonates with audiences, regardless of the era or the setting. It always comes down to how human beings relate to one another and then how it resonates in an audience, or not. And that’s how we judge things.
Ultimately, it has to have a human component, or else we’re not interested.” It’s this timeless storytelling, wonderfully played out against an unfamiliar background, that will secure Breaking Bad’s place as one of the most talked-about dramas of recent times. “With services like Netflix and iTunes, new generations will be able to discover the show in the future,” says Norris. “I imagine some kids going to college and binge-watching it together, smoking out of a bong or something. And ten years from now kids who are ten-year-olds now will sit down and watch it.”
Currently rated by online TV and film bible IMDb as the best TV series ever (averaging 9.6 out of ten), Breaking Bad has joined the company of such classics as The Sopranos and The Wire. And just like these shows, its success has changed the fortunes of all involved. “The entire BB family knew that this was very special,” says Aaron Paul, who has since starred in a Hollywood blockbuster, Need for Speed, and is attached to a number of high-profile projects. “It changed all of our lives,” adds Norris, who is currently starring in CBS drama Under the Dome. With Anna Gunn taking the Olivia Colman role opposite David Tennant in the US remake of Broadchurch, and Cranston starring in a big-budget reworking of Godzilla as well as treading the boards as Lyndon B Johnson on Broadway – it looks like they’re right. But at the centre of it all is the understated Vince Gilligan, who is already hard at work on a Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, based on Saul Goodman, the corrupt lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk. When asked why Breaking Bad captures audiences’ imaginations, Norris says, “I think it’s the devotion to perfection, and that comes from Vince. We all get inspired by that to do our best as actors… I think Vince has hired all the right people at every level, the writers, the editors, the photographer – everybody gets inspired by the writing and they deliver.
“In my humble opinion, when you go through Breaking Bad, there’s never a single false moment.”
Breaking Bad is available in its entirety on Netflix, on iTunes and on DVD. Buy the complete series for £69.99 at radiotimes.com/dvd18a
It’s up to you to decide the Radio Times Audience Award from the six TV shows shortlisted (Breaking Bad, Broadchurch, Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor, Educating Yorkshire, Gogglebox, The Great British Bake Off). Voting closes 12 noon, 15 May. The British Academy Television Awards are held on 18 May. Vote online at radiotimes.com/bafta.