Opinion: Breaking Bad was great, but falls just short of the greatest TV shows
Vince Gilligan's series was amazingly entertaining, but can't match up to Mad Men, The Wire et al
Twitter will feel like a slightly quieter place next week when the current slew of #breakingbad tweets finally tails off. The debate will rage on, though, about where Vince Gilligan’s creation sits in the great pantheon of episodic television, alongside the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men. Quantifying exactly what makes one show better than another is difficult; generally art of any kind has to be judged on its own merits.
However the widely accepted lists of ‘TV greats’ do have a few things in common, and Breaking Bad is no exception. A rich and textured story? Check. Excellent performances from the main cast and supporting roles? Check. Believable characters the audience can relate to? I can accept that not everyone has meth cooking and murder on their CV, but aspiring to be more and taking destiny into your own hands are empathetic, universal ideas. Finally and most simply it MUST be endlessly entertaining, which is exactly what Breaking Bad delivered in spades. If you need proof of that, have a glance at the maelstrom of opinion the show created and the feverish anticipation felt by fans (and vented via social media) while waiting for Netflix to release the final episodes.
So far, there aren’t many arguments against Walter White joining the likes of Don Draper, Nucky Thomson and Omar in the hall of television titans. However, the likes of those other shows had one element that Breaking Bad lacked: the personal relationships they depicted were ultimately used to send a much bigger message. Tony Soprano was the personification of the (ultimately doomed) pursuit of the American Dream, while The Wire used every character to systematically break down almost every facet of American society: law, education, politics, the free press and so on.
That’s not to say there are absolutely no bigger themes in Breaking Bad – it depicts the culture of violence that accompanies the world of organised crime; the disparate nature of life in America’s squeezed middle class - but the real core of the show is personal. It’s about Walter White, his family and Jesse Pinkman. The personal nature of the story is what we as an audience are focused on. The core dynamic wasn’t, ‘what does this all mean?’ – it was simply, ‘How will Walt and Jesse get out of this? What will they do?’ Let me be clear, this is not a criticism: this simplistic, human element at the heart of every episode dared you to watch the next one and the next, until the series became almost as addictive as Walter’s product.
Ultimately, the question of Breaking Bad’s greatness comes down to whether or not you require a broader subtext in your TV show. Vince Gilligan seems to be a creator that writes with a viewer in mind, revelling in set ups and pay offs – think of the teddy bear in the pool at the start of season two, the appearance of the M60 at the start of the last season or Lydia’s awfully particular drink order that Walt didn’t fail to notice (nor did the audience). There is something symbiotic about Gilligan’s approach, however. It is not a question of writing for himself or for the audience, but simply wanting to make the best show for those who tuned in every week. Perhaps it’s too early to decide if Breaking Bad will stand the test of time, but I’m happy for the debate to continue a while longer – I’d hate to give up on it cold turkey.