All too often, when discussing various versions of the “blank blank is the best blank blank blank ever” (fill in movie, music, tv show, book, actor, etc.), people either tend to jump to an already established popular choice (The Godfather is the best movie ever, The Sopranos is the best television show ever; Marlon Brando is the best actor ever, Shakespeare is the best writer, Hendrix is the best guitar player, New York
pizza is the best evuh) or try to uniquely identify their tastes by declaring some other off-beat preference, such as, “The Killers are the best band ever.”
There has been a lot of (or perhaps not enough?) talk lately about AMC’s drama Breaking Bad, which is starting it’s highly anticipated fourth season in July 2011. Forget about Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Rescue Me, The Killing, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or any other major network program, the realization is, no show is better written, acted, or more intriguing than Breaking Bad is at this very moment.
I am here to tell you that Breaking Bad is the best show on TV right now.
Breaking Bad, simply put, is about a middle class, suburban chemistry teacher in New Mexico that starts cooking methamphetamines after discovering he has lung cancer. In order to provide for his wife and special needs child, he concocts a plan with a former yo-boy student to cook and sell the drug. The overall arc of the show is the transformation of lead character Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from a sympathetic, innocent, every-man protagonist to a morally questionable thug. It asks the viewer, “what would you do if you found out you had cancer and had to provide for your family after you die?” I imagine most people (at least those of us that don’t live in New Mexico and teach high school chemistry) would not choose to cook and deal meth.
Throw in his semi-ridiculous, drug-addled side kick Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a suspicious wife (go Mrs. Bullock!), a DEA Agent brother-in-law, an over-the-top sleazy lawyer, and a slew of psychotic (and sometimes hilariously funny) drug dealers and you have the best show on TV. While were at it, might as well also throw in incredible cinematography, acting (lead actor Bryan Cranston has won Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy for three straight years–take that Draper!), and writing. In three seasons thus far, the show hasn’t lost one ounce of its appeal. If anything, it gets better with each one!
The transformation of a character from a starting point (chemistry teacher) to the eventual ending point (meth dealer) can really distinguish a run-of-the-mill series from a unique one. Some of the most brilliant aspects of a show like The Wire was watching the changes that characters like Carter and Pryzbylweski go through over the course of the story. Carter starts out as a goofball, hard-headed, quick-to-beat-you-down cop in season one. By season four he’s a lieutenant with a philosophical lean, helping out the troubled youths he used to pounce on regularly. Pryzbylweski’s character goes through two changes: one from cop to teacher, the other, from inexperienced, apprehensive, doormat of the students to a bearded professor-like, effective master of the art. Breaking Bad has quite successfully transformed each of its major characters from one starting point to a place where you might not even recognize who they are or what drives them (physically or philosophically). The thing is, these transformations don’t just happen over one or two episodes–or even over one season–they are gradual and (usually) realistic changes that fit in perfectly with the projected plot line: If you become a meth dealer, no matter how good your intentions are, you are going to end up in the underbelly of a despicable world.
Rooting for the “bad” guy is a long time favorite for many viewers (is it weird that I rooted for the shark in Jaws? Hey, how many people out there rooted for Darth Vader? Last time I looked, he was blowing up planets, massacring muppets in the forest, and choking underlings with his mind. All Jaws was guilty of is chomping on assholes who were on this turf!). As a writer of a show you are constantly challenged with ways to keep a characters story relevant and interesting, while also trying to grow and expand their role within the arc. Walter White is easy to root for. You like him from the start of the show. There is nothing imposing about him, nothing that if you met a guy like this in real life you would have any issues with. You want to like him and you do. So when he (like Jaws) starts turning into a “bad” man created by–or forced into–by his surroundings, you like to think, “hey, that could be me, sort of, I guess. I mean, I can relate to a ‘normal’ guy like that. I would probably do the same thing in that situation.” And the show is full of just that: situations. Sticky ones usually. Many times while watching the show you will ask yourself, “Ok, so how are they gonna get outta this one?!?!”
When the final scene of season three ended with a well pulled off cliffhanger (yes, the show does stick to some traditional tricks), I turned to Ms. FJB and said, “now tell me this isn’t the best show TV on right now?”
She didn’t disagree.
Jaded Note: I will continue to update this post throughout the new season (4th), which debuts July 18, 2011.