If you watched the Emmy Awards telecast earlier this month, you may have been taken, as we were, with the plaudits bestowed upon the now-concluded hit series “Breaking Bad.” The show won a basket full of awards, including three acting honors (for series star Bryan Cranston, and his co-stars, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn) and best dramatic series (the big prize of the night). All of the awards were richly deserved, to be sure. The show was high class pop art in every respect, with large followings across all demographics.
But in considering the entire series, and not just the last eight episodes, which were the second half of the show’s sixth season (in essence it was seven seasons, since the first eight episodes of season six were separated by almost a full year from the airing of the final eight), we were struck by what the show didn’t accomplish. And that failing, while not in the least detracting from the show’s popularity, probably knocks it down a peg or two in any claim that it rates as one of the best series of all time.
The show, brilliantly conceived by Vince Gilligan, began as a psychological drama, wherein a man (Walter White, the Cranston character), who somehow lost his rights to a Nobel Prize in chemistry, ended up being a high school chemistry teacher who also worked at a car wash to supplement the family’s income. The back story of that man was never fully detailed, which may have been a clever way to hook the audience the show attracted. But it took the series away from any Shakespearean aspirations and instead turned it into a succession of close calls for the man and his sidekick (played by Cranston and Paul, respectively) as they descended into the production of the perfect crystal meth, which Walter eventually adopted as his raison d’etre.
But the series continuously left aside potential psychological dissection in favor of shocking violence, much of it gratuitous, and cliff hanger endings. And by eschewing character study in favor of nail-biting action, the show came to resemble “24” far more than it did “The Sopranos,” with which it is all-too-often incorrectly compared. And as the story lines became more and more preposterous (albeit hugely entertaining) the opportunity to develop a deeper sociological statement, a la “The Wire,” was also lost. What were the societal implications of Walter’s creation of the perfect meth? Was his attempt to redeem his life through a life of crime all that different from the paths taken by many who seek to escape poverty by whatever means possible?
The series never explored those themes in any serious way. In the end, it was just another well-produced TV show with sharp writing and great acting that used the least sophisticated plot devices to hook and keep its audience. The series was first offered to HBO before landing on the more family-oriented AMC. HBO and the other “premium cable” channels are not restricted by the sexual taboos that commercial stations must abide by and are generally less concerned with ratings (since their subscribers pay up front for the non-commercial broadcasts). We wonder if the series would have taken a different path on HBO. Would Vince Gilligan have done more with the psychological study that Walter White, and to a lesser extent, Jessie (Mr. Paul’s character) presented? Would Gilligan have sought to do more with the darker aspects of the drug culture that was really only presented in superficial detail in the series?
Most likely the show would have looked the same, with perhaps some added titillation in the form of unclothed female pulchritude. But truly great television events, the kind that transcend the moment and make a statement that is both culturally relevant and artistically significant, are exceedingly rare. “Breaking Bad” could have been one, but in the end, it just broke bad.