First off, apologies to our American readers, because you, in your infinite, world-weary wisdom, are probably all over Breaking Bad, and don’t need some jumped up limey to tell you how good it is.
No, this piece is directed at you, the British reader (or perhaps other similarly uninitiated peoples from around the globe), because I have got a televisual treat for you…
Roll up, roll up, for your new favourite TV show. Prepare to marvel at its pop culture radar-bamboozling qualities. Be amazed at the tour-de-force acting blowing your mind episode after episode. Sigh with wonder at the fact that Channel 5 somehow got the rights to it in the UK, and not some more prestigious channel. Amazon the box set, settle in on your comfy sofa, open a beer, and get ready to be entertained.
Breaking Bad is the sordid but addictive tale of high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston)’s diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, and how this is the catalyst for a sudden career change to a crystal meth manufacturing underworld player. Jesse (Aaron Paul) is his dropout former pupil who acts as his partner and the gateway to the netherworld of drug crime. If that wasn’t enough of an about-face from his quiet, suburban lifestyle, how about the complication of having a pregnant wife and teenage son with cerebral palsy? Oh yeah, and did I mention his brother in law works in the Vice Squad?
Early on in the first episode, the show grabs you with a ‘flash-forward’ bringing you one of the most bizarre car chases you’ll ever see, complete with (I kid you not) flying trousers. From there, a quick world-building exercise ensues. You further learn that his brother in law seems to be quite good at catching (you guessed it) meth dealers, and it is at this point that you realised that you are hopelessly invested in the narrative. Bryan Cranston, who seems to have enjoyed quite the career renaissance off the back of this (he’s in literally everything) fully commits to his role, and as his previously-suppressed ruthless sociopath takes hold, it’s astounding that he somehow keeps us on his side. Jesse (perhaps surprisingly) provides us with a sympathetic edge to the dealing, meaning that the heavy emotional lifting isn’t left entirely to Walt’s family, who get to shine in other ways.
It’s often been said that this is a golden age in TV drama (particularly in the US), and our stateside cousins routinely rate this as highly as The Wire and The Sopranos. Two television series that have been the torch-bearers for quality television on both sides of the Atlantic. Vince Gilligan’s preference for seven episodes per season keeps the pacing short and snappy without ever feeling rushed, and the darkness (and boy, is it dark), is balanced by a generous helping of some artfully-placed humour.
This alternate version of the American Dream fires the reward centres of the brain like few can. My advice: get into this show now, get in the lift on the ground floor and make sure that everyone sees you doing it. Then, in a few years, when the rest of the masses eventually catch up, you can smugly inform them that they have “so much good stuff to come”, saying in your most patronising voice: “I’m so jealous of you, getting to watch this for the first time”, all the while lovingly caressing your prized boxsets. It’s not too late, don’t be a sheep, be a shepherd.
A drug-dealing shepherd.