TV OD: Breaking Bad Going Next Level
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 20, 2009
I’d like to say that my initial prejudices against Breaking Bad were due to bad/misleading advertising, but thinking about it, there really might not have been a way to properly advertise for this show. Because you hear the concept—the dad from Malcolm in the Middle becoming a meth dealer to provide for his family after his imminent death from cancer–and it sounds like a bad joke. In fact, in the aftermath of fellow square-turns-pusher comedy Weeds (which has become something of a top-tier show in its own right), it seems like a bad, highly unoriginal joke. I even watched the first couple episodes, and wasn’t that impressed–I had absolutely no idea what kind of tone the show was going for, since it wasn’t really funny enough to be a comedy, and it felt too off-kilter and ridiculous to really be taken seriously as drama either.
I picked Breaking Bad back up at the beginning of the second season, and while I’m not sure if it’s because the show has changed or if I’m just watching it with different expectations, my perspective on it has become totally different. I still can’t pin down the tone, but now I realize it’s not due to confusion or inconsistency on the part of the producers–it’s because there’s never been a TV show like this before. It’s not a comedy, but that’s not to say it’s not funny, and it’s not really a drama, but that’s not to say that it can’t be suspenseful, moving, and even deeply disturbing. It’s a show that, in terms of tone, style and yes, even subject–is almost completely without precedent–a fact made all the more impressive by it being a basic cable program.
For one thing, I’ve become extremely impressed by the way the fact’s central conceit–that of a high school chemistry teacher using his formula skills to rise up the ranks of the Southwest drug underworld–has become something of a given. A lesser show would have milked this culture clash for all its worth, playing it for endless petty comedy–having Walt (Cranston’s character) using the wrong hip drug lingo, mixing in slinger talk with his in-class lectures, maybe starting to listen to Notorious B.I.G. or The Clipse…it would have been a mess. If I remember correctly, the show did do a little bit of this towards the beginning of the series, but now, Breaking Bad treats its ridiculous premise as seriously as any other show on TV–and gradually, you forget how unlikely the whole thing even is in the first place, and instead can focus on the actual characters and storylines.
And speaking of the characters–this is far from a one-man show. When first introduced to Jesse, Walt’s ex-student partner-in-crime, I thought his character was going to be positively unbearable. A late-20s wannabe hustler who talks in faux-gangsta, dresses like one of the characters in The Big Hit…and this is going to be one of the main chracters? Well, give credit to the writers and actor Aaron Paul for making the character believably pathetic–almost painfully so at times–but also sympathetic, heartbreaking, and oddly endearing. He’s a natural burnout–great stoner eyes, a seemingly congenital twitch, and an overriding paranoia that can only come from a decade and a half of dealing with hard drugs and the people who sell them. Rather than make him be Walt’s wacky sidekick–which would have been very, very easy to do–Jesse’s been made into a legitimate character with his own life, his own problems, and as of recently, even his own love interest, in a subplot that has shocked me with its inherent sweetness.
But the real thing that I think is really drawing me to this show is how much faith it has in its audience–easily more than any other show on TV since the heyday of The Wire. It almost reminds me of a Coen Brothers movie in the way that some scenes will be going on for a whole minute or longer before you even realize what they’re about, or what their relevance is to the story at hand. Last week’s episode even began with a fictional latin music video, detailing the rise of Walt to power and how the New Mexico cartel would likely not stand for it, but presented like a completely non-fictional, low-budget video, with cheaply gimmicky camera work and bad acting and everything. Its presence was never explained, and it had no real impact on the storyline as it were, but it set the tone perfectly for the surreal, uneasy episode that was to follow.
That’s a recurring trend for Breaking Bad–it never explains more than it has to. In one of my favorite scenes from this season, Jesse’s parents have him kicked out of his house, and he’s forced to ask an old bandmate of his–one who’s now married, has a kid, and is living a comfortably middle-class lifestyle–if he can stay with him for the weekend. The two of them are jamming in his kitchen, reminiscing about the old times, when his wife comes home. One look at Jesse, and we know what’s going to happen–the old cliched scene of the wife yelling “No WAY is that drug-dealing loser friend of yours staying anywhere near our kid!!,” the husband arguing back but eventually conceding, and eventually giving the friend some lame excuse and giving him the boot. Rather than putting the audience through that, Breaking Bad doesn’t show us the husband and wife as they go through the first two parts of the scene, instead focusing on Jesse as the inevitable outcome of the situation becomes obvious to him, and not only will he have to find a new place to sleep tonight, but he’ll probably never be able to hang out with his old friend again. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, made all the more so by bypassing all the unnecessary parts.
Ultimately, I really have absolutely no idea what to expect when I watch this show. And that’s probably what makes it the best show on TV right now–until seasons four and five of Friday Night Lights, anyway.