Arts and Culture

Why 'Breaking Bad' Is So Good

Pitch black and often funny, the show wouldn't work here. We have health care.

By Steve Burgess 26 Mar 2010 |

Steve Burgess writes about what's on the screen, small and large, every other Friday on The Tyee.

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Happy family (except for cancer and drugs).

The end of the Cold War was a tragedy for screenwriters and spy novelists. President Obama's new health care legislation could have a similar effect on American medical dramas. At least one TV series would have seen its whole premise undermined by universal health insurance. Luckily for the folks at AMC, Breaking Bad began back in the days when getting sick in the States meant financial disaster -- or as Republicans call it, the Golden Era. Creator Vince Gilligan's pitch-black drugs-and-cancer drama kicked off season three last week.

Breaking Bad represents the second salvo in AMC's attempt to redefine itself as a rival for HBO (albeit one that carries ads for penis extension pills). Mad Men succeeded spectacularly in giving the channel instant artistic cred. Breaking Bad has not quite matched its stable-mate's pop culture buzz, but it has done pretty well for itself. In fact, Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston now has a two-Emmy winning streak versus Mad Men's Jon Hamm as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Prime Time Drama Series.

Walter's secret life

Cranston is making the most of his career break. Three seasons into this defining role, his days on Malcolm in the Middle must seem very far away. Cranston plays Walter White, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. To pay for his treatment and leave a legacy for his family, White partners up with a young drug dealer named Jesse (Aaron Paul) and starts cooking up huge quantities of top-quality crystal meth. As White attempts to juggle his responsibilities at home, school, and in the drug business, keeping his secrets while undergoing brutal chemotherapy, hilarity ensues.

Really, it does sometimes. Breaking Bad contains plenty of very black humour courtesy of characters like Badger the drug dealer (Matt Jones), Satanic lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), and DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), searching for a drug lord who happens to be his brother-in-law.

The show delights in creative touches like hiring a band of Mexican narco corridos to perform a ballad about the plot. There are also occasional sequences that suggest McGyver gone bad, as White uses his science skills to solve the knotty problems of the drug trade. Did you know that you can poison people or blow them sky-high with a handful of beans and a home chemistry set? Gather 'round, kids!


But Breaking Bad is more often black than funny. A bouncing mattress, seen from under the bed, turns out to hold a couple, as you might expect -- yet it's not sex bouncing the mattress but chest compressions, a desperate attempt to revive a recently OD'd girlfriend. Sometimes the show tries too hard to shock, as when a fresh-faced little kid on a bike turns out to be a hired assassin.

Breaking Bad has plenty of inspired moments. But it does not really belong alongside shows like Mad Men and The Wire in the first rank of the recent TV renaissance. Like so many other programs in which the protagonist leads a double life, Breaking Bad suffers from an overload of too-convenient plot points, required to keep the conceit intact and the action churning. Sometimes it seems Walter's wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) has been getting suspicious since before they met.

Season three begins with Walter's cancer in remission. But even if it gets worse, will he still need drug money to pay his medical bills? Perhaps the show will now shift to Washington, where Walt will use his science smarts to take out the obstructionist leaders of the Republican Party. Now that would be appointment TV.  [Tyee]

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