Arts and Culture

'Breaking Bad,' Latest in Depravity TV

I can only stand so much evil mixed with bad decor and call it entertainment.

By Shannon Rupp 21 Sep 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Read her previous articles here.

As Walter White scrambles to his Sept. 29 finale and the media adulation for Breaking Bad hits its crescendo, I have the urge to confess something I dare not utter in my own social circles: I hate Breaking Bad. Not least because I just cannot stand being in that house.

A colleague burst out laughing when I admitted this, but I'm not joking. It's like some holdover from the suburban 1970s -- a dark brown rabbit warren filled with particleboard furniture. Yes, I know it is a reflection of both Walter's low income as a high school teacher and the general mingyness of his life when we first meet him.

But I can only stand so much evil mixed with bad decor and call it entertainment.

Make no mistake, Walter White isn't an anti-hero, he's evil incarnate. Albeit well written evil. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but he appears to have ushered in a tolerance for evil-as-entertainment that I find increasingly disturbing.

Ever since Tony

Television's love of the anti-hero was considered an artistic and commercial revelation when Tony Soprano came along in 1999. At the time, there was an industry-wide belief that because TV comes to us in our homes we wanted characters we could like. That dictated the tone of most shows. At the time, I thought it also explained why television was so relentlessly bad.

I used to joke that Friends was really for people who didn't have friends. Even the dramas were conceived of as artificially sunny realms that appealed to the sort of people who do PR.

At best we got the occasional conflicted character who did something unethical and felt huge remorse -- the doctors on MASH or the nurses on China Beach. But no actual villain got to be a video star outside of major movies or Disney cartoons. (Is anyone really going to dispute that Cruella De Vil is the star of 101 Dalmatians?)

Walt Disney managed to make art with surprising frequency because he figured out what John Milton already knew in the 17th century: anti-heroes like Lucifer in Paradise Lost are charismatic. That's because they take arms against a sea of troubles; they don't bob along in the rowboat making cheery noises about the importance of positive thinking.

Sure, there are still plenty of TV hits in what I call the "faint hope for dullards" category. Just consider the inexplicable popularity of Two and a Half Men, now entering its 11th season and still peddling the message that being sexist and stupid is the key to a happy life.

But overwhelmingly, TV-to-talk-about has embraced the anti-hero as a formula because TV is a commercial art and anti-heroes have been big sellers, ever since Tony spilled his guts to Dr. Melfi.

Not your standard oppressed villain

But Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan -- appearing at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 27 -- crossed the line from rogue to villain with Walter White.

I'm physically uncomfortable every time we enter his ugly, claustrophobic home. Despite my own history of writing for home decor magazines, which may have given me an unrealistic longing for polished interiors, I suspect it has more to do with Walt being a manifestation of malevolence.

I bailed on the show shortly after the high school chem teacher's grandiose alter ego Heisenberg emerged. At first I thought it was a welcome return to some of the black humour that had leavened Breaking Bad in its early days. The show grew relentlessly dark, and by the time Walt allowed his meth-making partner's girlfriend to drown in her own vomit I was finding it a chore to watch.

As the horrifying story unfolded, I caught myself feeling relieved every time Saul Goodman, the criminal lawyer who puts the emphasis on criminal, would arrive to brighten the scenes. He's the sort of anti-hero I like: matter-of-fact about the business of crime in a way that reminds me of corporate lawyers. I took him for social commentary and wasn't surprised to hear he is getting his own spin-off, Better Call Saul, named for his hilariously cheesy DIY commercials.

But once Heisenberg arrived it was clear that Walt wasn't just an unlucky schmo who had been pushed too far by a blatantly unfair economic system. I liked the idea of someone like Walt wielding a PhD as a weapon against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But I'm not so comfortable keeping company with evil. And Heisenberg looked like a monster who had been there all along, surfacing in small ways, until Walt's cancer gave him permission to run wild, disposing of his enemies and/or inconvenient bystanders.

Here come the gorefests

It's a measure of the show's technical quality that watching it made my skin crawl. Although I gave BrBa a miss, it wasn't long before I noticed the onslaught of shows that made the Sopranos look like saints as showrunners began celebrating foul acts with unfettered glee.

Walt isn't like the anti-heroes that kicked off the trend. He isn't Dexter, everyone's favourite serial killer, who is only superficially a villain. Dex, who just finished his eighth and final season, is really more of an avenging angel, choosing his victims from the worst criminals. He fulfills our secret wish to kill monsters. The rogues of The Wire did many an illegal thing, but the real villain was every corrupt bureaucracy that forced them to get creative. Ditto Mad Men's anti-hero, Don Draper. He's vile, but not evil. He's done better than most given his circumstances, which include poverty and abuse. We feel some admiration for the poor bastard, along with our sympathy for his co-workers, wives and children.

While I appreciate Breaking Bad's writing, which has newspaper scribes wallowing in hyperbole and comparing Gilligan to Shakespeare, just consider the shows that have launched in its wake. A startling array of beautifully produced gore-fests celebrating monsters, many of whom enjoy torturing and murdering women.

Hannibal, for example, is downright pornographic, with its dreamlike sequences showing naked women impaled on antlers. Actors Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen (as a younger Hannibal the Cannibal of Silence of the Lambs fame) both do a fine job, as near as I can tell from the few episodes I could tolerate. The show made me queasy, much like the way Breaking Bad does. Ditto American Horror Story, which lost me after just a couple of creepy episodes incorporating tales of women tortured to death.

Then there are the Brit hits, The Fall (starring Gillian Anderson) and Luther. They also have a pornographic feel, as the camera lingers on the actual killings as well as the horrific crime scenes. The murderers in both shows are oddly sympathetic. The Killing, just cancelled, takes advantage of Vancouver's moody fall weather to portray depravity and despair of all sorts, which inevitably culminates in the inventive slaughter of a woman.

And don't get me started on the flesh explosions that go with zombie-mania.

I appreciate the craft skills behind the current crop of series saluting the obscene, but I do not want to spend time with these people. Which reminded me of that TV truism that insisted characters had to be likeable. They were half right. At this point, I'd settle for characters who aren't repulsive.  [Tyee]

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