The unfortunate thing about American cable television is that certain shows, certain utterly brilliant shows, can get lost in the mix in foreign countries, relegated to expensive local cable channels (only 6.8% of Aussies have cable), late night slots nobody knows about, or obscure digital stations with little to no advertising and about two seasons too late. You could always browse the DVD store, but with so many shows out there, just how do you separate them without some serious research?
I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (the fifth and final season is due next year), undoubtedly one of the best dramas I have seen in years, if not ever. Shockingly, I had never even heard of the multiple award-winning show until a friend of mine and I were discussing how important it was to have a ‘good concept’ when trying to write a script (we used to think witty dialogue was enough — damn you Tarentino!). And as soon as he mentioned the story of Breaking Bad — an underachieving chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth with a drop kick former student in order to provide for his family, with his DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) brother-in-law hot on his trail — I was hooked.
I’m not sure if Breaking Bad is the type of show I would have appreciated in my youth. It is filled with tension and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but in a slow, insidious kind of way unlike the ‘pure adrenaline rush’ shows (such as say 24 and the first season of Prison Break). It’s a drama but the unexpected black comedy keeps making me laugh out loud, while the grotesque violence and depravity keeps making me squirm. It grabs you in with this compelling idea and pulls you deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing and the horrific impact it has on the lives of everyone around it. Creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted to follow a character as he gradually descends from a morally upstanding person into a total badass. And after four seasons, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist Walt is well on his way.
Walt may have gone into meth making because of the purest of intentions — but because of the constant lies and deceit, the dark (and darker) moral decisions and judgments he is forced to make, combined with a massively suppressed ego that is finally released — he finds himself regularly pushing the boundaries and crossing lines you could never have imagined him crossing at the beginning of the show (or even a season ago). And yet, despite who he is and who he has become, deep down you still find yourself rooting for Walt, which is really at the heart of what makes Breaking Bad so freaking good.
The show is brilliantly constructed from top to bottom, inside out. The quality scripts produced by American writers on such shows never cease to amaze me. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always riveting. The direction and the pacing are measured, allowing the story to unfold in a deliberate fashion. The use of cinematography is probably the best I’ve seen in any TV show.
But of course, the show would not be where it is without the characters and the actors portraying them. Bryan Cranston (prior to Breaking Bad, best known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, though I was stunned to discover that he was actually smug dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfled!) deservedly won three consecutive Emmys for his astonishing portrayal of protagonist Walter White (and it probably would have been four straight had the scheduling not precluded the show from this year’s Emmys).
Cranston grabs the spotlight with his award-winning performance, which makes people forget how magnificent and equally irreplaceable Aaron Paul is as the insufferable yet lovable Jesse Pinkman. I’m glad to see Paul, whose character was almost killed off in the first couple of episodes, be rewarded with an Emmy of his own in 2010.
This drug-making duo drives the show, but every key supporting character, from Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), is multi-dimensionally crafted. And what about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)? Everybody has their own motives, weaknesses and demons. Special mention has to go out to Walt’s boss and intellectual equal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who absolutely ignited the screen in season four. It’s not often that all the core characters from a show are this interesting, dynamic and ever-evolving.
And now we wait for the final season, season five, which is reportedly going to be 16 episodes (season one had seven episodes, and seasons two through four each had 13). I for one am eager to see where the show heads after the way season four ended. Will Walt keep falling deeper and deeper or will he try to turn back around (if he can)? What will happen to his explosive love-hate relationship with Pinkman? Will Skyler become an official part of the family business? And will Hank finally realise the man he’s after has been right beside him all along?
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about an idea for a TV show. It’s about a meth cooker who, after discovering that his cancer has been cured, decides to quit to become a high school chemistry teacher. I think it’ll be a winner.