I am not one for hyperbole. If anything, I tend toward underselling things and tempering expectations. I like a lot, but love very few. Please keep this in mind when you read the following statement.
Breaking Bad is one of the best television shows of all time.
That’s right. Not one of the best shows of the summer. Not one of the best shows of the 2000s. I’m taking one of the best in the entire history of television.
If you are not watching this show, you are really missing out.
Breaking Bad follows the evolution of one Walter White (Bryan Cranston). When we meet Walt in the pilot, he is a mild mannered high school chemistry teacher. He seems like a good and decent man, but there is something slightly pathetic and unfulfilled about him. When he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, it is the final blow in what appears to have been a lifetime of disappointment. Facing his impending death, Walt worries about how to take care of his pregnant wife Skyler and their teenaged son with cerebral palsy when he is gone. He needs to make a lot of money in what little time he has left and in desperation he decides to use his knowledge of chemistry to cook crystal meth. To aid him in this endeavor, he needs the help of his former student and drug addict, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).
So begins the slow descent of Walter White into a life of crime and moral ambiguity, or as creator Vince Gilligan said when he pitched the show, the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface.
The subsequent episodes chronicle Walt “breaking bad” as he gets more deeply involved in the drug trade and his continuing depravity as he makes more and more ethical compromises, justifying his actions by saying he is doing it for his family. That may have been the initial push that got Walt into the game, but that isn’t what is keeping him there. The deeper in he gets, an essential truth becomes clear: Walt is enjoying this and relishing his newfound power.
Bryan Cranston is a revelation in the role of Walter White; prior to Breaking Bad he was best known as the goofy father on Malcolm in the Middle (or Dr. Tim Whatley for Seinfeld fans), which did not give him a lot of opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles. But Cranston has acting chops and has taken the complex and flawed Walter White and has run with it. He is just so good. It takes a lot of guts to make your central character less and less likable as the show progresses, but Cranston and Gilligan have done just that and somehow have made the show even more compelling. You are disgusted by what Walt does, yet you can’t look away and you can’t bring yourself to fully root against him. Cranston’s subtly and nuance prevents White from being a complete monster.
Breaking Bad is further elevated by the performances from the rest of the cast. Aaron Paul is the perfect balance to Cranston and they have among the best chemistry that I’ve seen on television. Their relationship feels real and believable. Jesse is clearly the more morally bankrupt of the two when the show begins, but his journey is quite the opposite of Walt’s. As the show progresses, Jesse becomes more sympathetic and Paul does an amazing job of showing the wounded boy that Jesse really is and how damaged he has become as Walt drags him further and further into the darkness. My favorite episode of the series occurs in season three (“The Fly) and is just Cranston and Paul, trapped in a room, turning in one of the best acting performances that I have witnessed. On the surface nothing seems to happen in this “bottle episode” and yet it is absolutely riveting.
Of course, it helps that the actors are given such wonderful writing to execute. The stories on Breaking Bad are so well crafted and thoughtful; they have figured out how to move the pieces on this chess board quietly and dramatically. Nothing feels like a forced plot development or contrivance; watching the seasons a second time, you notice little hints throughout the episodes that allude to the big reveals. This is not a show that is written haphazardly; they have a plan and it is executed with amazing precision and consideration. They know all the right notes to play for maximum effect; in one particularly tense scene of an episode, I realized that I had been holding my breath. I was so enthralled with the drama and the possibilities of what could happen that I forgot to keep breathing. THAT is quality television.
The cinematography of Breaking Bad is also stellar. It looks more like a movie than a show that is on basic cable. There are some spectacular landscapes in New Mexico and they are filmed so lushly that even in the midst of all the madness, you can’t help but appreciate their beauty. Light, color and shadows are all used to complement and augment the story. They aren’t afraid to use interesting angles or unusual contrasts in service to the narrative. Much like there are no wasted words in Breaking Bad, there are also no wasted shots. The show is just visually stunning.
There is no sugar coating it – this is a dark show. There is violence and depravity. But there are also moments of humor. Granted, it is usually black humor, but it still provides momentary respite from the intensity of the rest of the show. I’ve laughed harder at moments in Breaking Bad than I have in standard comedies simply because I am so invested in what is transpiring that the release is so much greater when something funny does occur. The people behind the show know how much the viewer can take and provide these little nuggets of comedy to cleanse your palate, much like a sorbet, before the next big moment occurs.
I can’t state enough how much I love this show; it demands and receives my complete attention whenever it is on. I don’t answer my phone or surf the web – it’s just me and Walter White. This is what fantastic storytelling looks like. The show is going into its swan song as the beginning of the final season starts on Sunday (though the final season is split in half – eight episodes in 2012 and the final eight in 2013), but there is still plenty of time for you to get on board. The first season is only six episodes, due to the writer’s strike in 2007, and I challenge you to watch them and not be completely hooked. Breaking Bad is one of the few shows that had me at hello; I was all in by halfway through the pilot and haven’t looked back since.
Watch Breaking Bad. Experience the greatness. You can thank me later.
Season 5 of Braking Bad debuts on Sunday July 15th at 10 pm ET on AMC. Seasons 1-4 are streaming on Netflix Instant and are available on DVD.