Monday, October 10, 2011

On The Indisputable Greatness of BREAKING BAD

- This Fall, I have to admit, I haven't been grabbed by many new TV shows. Some of the new crop of series have been decent, some good, but on some level - particularly for drama - I can't help but feel that the bar has simply been raised. BREAKING BAD, quite simply, makes just about every other show on TV look weak in comparison.

I've been wanting to write about Breaking Bad here for a long time. If you follow me on Facebook, you are well aware that I can't stop raving about the show. And I realize - it's one of those shows that, if you're not watching it, you may very well wonder what all of the fuss is about. At first glance, the premise might seem odd, perhaps even off-putting. And I know that for me, the potential of the show simply didn't register at first. Looking back though, I kick myself for not jumping onboard with the show from Day 1. Afterall, wasn't I always raving about Bryan Cranston on Malcolm In the Middle? Wasn't I already a fan of creator Vince Gilligan from his influential role on The X-Files? So, how did I miss Breaking Bad? Again, at first glance the premise sounds bleak to the point of being off-putting. A mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Strapped for money and desperate for a means to fund his treatment and support his family, the teacher takes a giant plunge - he decides to use his expertise with chemistry to become a meth cooker.

That is the one-line synopsis, but it isn't what Breaking Bad is about, really. Not at all. And indeed, the short, six-episode first season of the show only hints at the nature of what is to come. Because for our hero, Walter White, Breaking Bad isn't just some fish-out-of-water romp about a nerdy teacher who decides to cook meth. Oh no. This is about the journey of a man to the dark side. This is about one man's descent from good to evil. It is also alternately funny as hell and intense as hell. The tone is the Coen Bros. meets Tarantino meets 24. There is a quirkiness to the characters and the world of Breaking Bad, and a definite undercurrent of dark humor and irony that guides the series. But the story is told with such unpredictablility, with such intensity, with such care and nuance and style - that the end result is like nothing I've ever seen in movies, in TV, hell - in all of fiction.

Vince Gilligan and his team of writers and directors, along with the show's outstanding cast, have created a true work of art for our time. Bryan Cranston, as Walter White, is absolutely phenomenal. He deserves every Emmy awarded to him and more. I'd go so far as to say that in Walter, Cranston has helped to fashion one of the greatest, most fascinating, and most enduring fictional characters I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know. Cranston is so damn likable as Walter, that it only very slowly dawns on us to what extent he's gradually - but markedly - become a bad person.

And that brings me to the thing about Breaking Bad that keeps you thinking about it and discussing it throughout the week: it really is one of the most interesting and punishing examinations of morality I've ever encountered in fiction. Oftentimes, fiction - especially that which exists in a somewhat heightened reality, glosses over the moral implications of its characters' actions. And when the true morality of a character's M.O. is eventually looked at - say, in 24 or a Batman film - it often comes off as hokey. But Breaking Bad, from the get-go, has made examining its characters' underlying moral justifications a central focus of the show. I don't mean to sound too heady though - because the thing about Breaking Bad is that it's not working on some lofty level of intellectualism. This is a show about a man who is in many ways highly - and disturbingly - relatable. We, all of us, are Walter White. All of the moral comprimises we make on a daily basis. All of the things we do to get ahead personally and professionally. The ethics of our jobs, of the companies we work for, of the people we associate with, of the government we live under, of the society we participate in - how much in our lives is, even in some small way, morally suspect?

That's the problem of Walter White, the moral logic puzzle. Is cooking and selling meth - a poisonous, addictive, life-destroying drug - okay if it's the best option for supporting one's family? Is it, in any way, defensible? At first, many of Walter's actions are driven, seemingly, by absolute necessity. He does things because he has to. For his very survival. But slowly, slowly, the tide turns. Walt has ways, opportunities, to get out of his life of crime, but he doesn't. Pride, excitement, adrenaline, ego keep him in. And a very fine line becomes visible to us, the viewer, even if Walt often remains willingly oblivious - a line that Walt begins to cross - a line where Walt *chooses* to do bad things and be a bad person even when other options are available to him. The show makes you think, question, engage in these sorts of moral "what-if's." Would you steal to protect your family? Would you kill? Would it matter if the victim was a hardened criminal, a white-collar criminal, or a relative innocent? At what point do you cross a line that you can never come back from? At what point do you go from a good person forced to do some bad things to being someone who is, at their core, morally bankrupt? This is the journey of Walter White, this is the underlying theme of BREAKING BAD.

At the same time, Breaking Bad isn't just about moral philosophizing. The show is not a mere ethics lesson. It is a thriller, a comedy, and it is better-plotted than any other show on television, maybe ever. So many TV series are bogged down by formula and routine, but Breaking Bad might be one of the most unpredictable series of all time. So many episodes end on cliffhangers that leave you wondering ... "um, what the hell happens *now* ...?" The pacing of the series might be described as "controlled chaos." Slow builds lead to moments of ultra-intensity. Long-gestating plot points come back into play at unexpected moments. Characters who may have initially been written off end up playing major, key roles in the plot.

And no show this side of 24 in its heyday has ever had this many genuinely jaw-dropping "holy $#%&!" moments. If you haven't seen Breaking Bad, some of my above comments may make it seem slow or ponderous - but that couldn't be farther from the truth. This is one of the most intense viewing experiences I've ever had. Heart-pounding, fingernail-biting, jaw-on-the-floor stuff. The palpable tension permeates through most episodes, but then, like a thunderbolt, the show will - sometimes without warning - switch into a next-level gear of high-intensity that most shows will never, ever reach. Part of the intensity stems from the unpredictability. We don't know who will live, who will die. Any cast member is expendable. The show is *about* a man living on borrowed time, so even Walter White could be a goner at any time - we just don't know. That said, the intensity also comes from just how great these characters are. Aside from Walter, there's Aaron Paul's incredible portrayal of Jesse Pinkman, the young delinquent and former student of Walter who ends up as Walter's trusted partner-in-crime. Jesse is a perfect example of how the show plays with our sympathies. At first, Jesse was the bratty burnout who needed some serious life lessons hammered into his thick skull. Now, Jesse has become the heart and soul of Breaking Bad - and we are actively rooting for him to find some sort of moral center and achieve something for himself. The craziest part of that is that, to do so, Jesse may well find himself at direct odds with the increasingly unhinged Walter White. A similar role reversal has occured with Walt's brother-in-law, Hank - played amazingly by Dean Norris. At first, Hank came off as an obnoxious loudmouth - a DEA agent full of swagger and ego - a guy who was never going to be someone we actively rooted for on the show, particularly if rooting for him meant rooting against the amiable average-Joe that was Walt. Oh, how things have changed. Hank has evolved into a determined crusader - a tough, no-quit bastard who in many ways is the true hero of the show. Who would have ever suspected? It's a tribute to Dean Norris and to the creative minds behind Breaking Bad that Hank has been revealed as such a three-dimensional, fan-favorite character.

Indeed, the world of Breaking Bad is populated with all manner of interesting, quirky, scary characters. And man, the actors who portray them are just uniformly awesome. So many of these character started out as background players, and are now beloved members of the cast. Bob Odenkirk is fantastic and hilarious as Saul Goodman, the skeezy lawyer who becomes Walt and Jesse's confidante. Anna Gunn has been a scene stealer as Walt's wife, Skyler. Same goes for RJ Mitte as Walt's teenaged son, Walter Jr. Jonathan Banks as Mike "The Cleaner" is another guy who slowly but surely became one of the show's best characters - a badass enforcer who is getting up there in years, but who still packs a punch. Mark Margolis is one of the show's most improbably awesome characters - as the wheelchair-bound, immobilized former cartel leader, Tio Salamanca, he has become one of the most intriguing and memorable characters, well, ever on TV. And finally, these last two seasons have seen the emergence of Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring - aka on of the most interesting, memorable, sadistic villains in the history of television. Into the cannon that includes The Cigarette-Smoking Man, Ben Linus, and more, it is now safe to include the enigmatic Chilean drug lord (who poses as the civic-minded owner of the El Pollos Hermanos chicken chain) in that lineup.

Like many, I got to the breaking point, so to speak, prior to Season 4 of Breaking Bad, and decided to catch up on the show prior to the start of the new season. I picked up the blu-ray of Season 1 and blew through it, and soon afterwards, I found out that AMC was broadcasting the entirety of the series, in sequence, each week leading up to the Season 4 premiere - two episodes per week. For a few months this past summer, a weekly double-dose of Breaking Bad became a weekly tradition for my brother and I. And time and again, we were left with our jaws on the floor after some shocking new revelation or some ultra-intense, climactic sequence of sheer awesomeness. The show was nearly as addictive as Walter White's trademark blue meth, and being relegated to merely one episode per week during Season 4 felt, at first, like serious deprivation. As much as I could though, I tried to get others onboard. Breaking Bad is a show that needs to be watched, discussed, theorized about, speculated upon. It's open for analysis and interpretation like no show since Lost. And man, I wish more people watched - THIS is the kind of show that is made to be discussed over the proverbial water-cooler on a Monday morning. But I will say, it's been fascinating each week to read over comments and theories on sites like The AV Club and Hitfix. Not to be a huge nerd about it, but Breaking Bad, for all its thrills and humor and excitement, also has a literary quality ripe for analysis. People will be talking and thinking about this show for year and years to come.

And to that end, I say only this: last night was the Season 4 finale of Breaking Bad. It was fantastic - absolutely explosive. There will be a several month wait for the start of Season 5, which will be the show's final season (albeit broken up into two halves on AMC). But trust me, if you are a fan of great TV, of great characters, of great stories - you are going to want to be a part of this, part of the discussion. So while you have time, get the DVD's, watch on Netflix, download on iTunes - whatever you have to do. I want to be talking with all of you next year after each episode. When I update my Facebook status about Breaking Bad, I want dozens of comments. This show deserves it. And you deserve to see it. So go - watch - immediately, and prepare for an unprecedented level of awesome. Because, quite simply, Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV shows ever made. And man, I can't wait to see what happens next.

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