Sunday, October 9, 2011

Breaking Bad is getting good

AMC’s Breaking Bad is the one show that everybody tells me I “have to watch.”  Much of this comes from friends who are both BB fans and know about my interests and blog (of which there are literally couples), who swear that it’s the best show on AMC and that Bryan Cranston is the best actor on TV.  As an ardent fan of Mad Men (and The Walking Dead) I presumed that that was crazy talk.  But after binging on the first three seasons of BB, comparisons aren’t entirely sacrilegious, and every bit of praise aimed at Cranston I will buy wholesale.

The most trafficked post to date was my review of Limitless and clearly there is a huge online thirst for editorials about popular culture[1].  My past few entries—and well, this whole blog really—articulate the tension between the neo-prohibitionist movement of drug temperance and the “new school” of substance abuse awareness where there is such thing as “responsible use” even if said use isn’t always in accordance with the law.

For the record, I like to hedge by falling vaguely in between these two camps.  The law is surely flawed, but true drug abuse is a terrible human condition.  Defining what’s what is where things get tricky.

From this blog’s ongoing perspective of weighing if popular culture seems to glamorize drug issues responsibly or irresponsibly, Breaking Bad begs to be scrutinized.  When Netflix expanded its instant streaming catalog to include BB, I couldn’t resist[2].

For those not familiar, Breaking Bad is a serial drama about a very good high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who resorts to learns that he has terminal cancer and resorts to cooking meth in order to provide for his family’s future.  (For those not familiar who also may want to discover BB for themselves in the future, this entry contains spoilers.  You’ve been warned).

The series’ protagonist Walter “Walt” White is exceptionally played by Bryan Cranston, who is otherwise arguably known as the dad from Malcolm in the Middle.  I was never a big fan of Malcolm, but from what little I did watch, Cranston always had a daft comedic touch.  In BB, he sheds any glimmer of lightness in the first few episodes and becomes something completely different and darker.  When Walt’s cancer (or market-research savvy showrunners, I suspect) progress to take his hair in the first season and add a badass ginger-beard, the transformation is complete.  There is absolutely no sign of Malcolm’s dad[3].

Cranston is simply awesome.  This is no secret, as he’s won 3 Emmy’s for his manically complex portrayal of Walt[4].  Everybody else keeps up admirably.  The only other guy in Cranston’s league is Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, the best TV lawyer since Lionel Hutz, and this is Odenkirk’s best work ever (yes, that includes Mr. Show).

There’s a lot of secrets going on between Walt and his family.  It would be like if Tony Soprano never told his family about being a mafia kingpin: BB is rich with opportunities for suspense.  We care a lot about Walt, his wife (preggers!) and son (cerebral palsy!), who are both sympathetic characters.  We also care about Walt’s Michael Chiklisish brother-in-law—who just so happens to be a DEA agent—and less so about his bitch-narcissist sister-in-law, who is basically a total twat.

I’m more on-the-fence about Walt’s partner-in-crime Jessie Pinkman, who was a burnout former student in Walt’s high school chemistry class, and who constantly seems to be high-strung and stammering his lines like Jonah Hill[5].  Their worlds collide in the pilot episode when a fresh-from-the-doctor’s-office Walt volunteers to go on a meth-lab raid with his garish brother-in-law as a way to contemplate entering the meth business.  As the DEA busts into a New Mexico suburban home, only Walt notices him escape, and viola, the chemist has found his distributor.

The meth/cancer subplot is really not a subplot but the central plot of the series around which everything else seems to orbit[6].  Early episodes are viscerally discomforting purely because of how Cranston portrays the suffering he incurs from cancer.  I began rooting for Walt’s recovery not for plot-resolution reasons of extending the series, but because it can be really difficult to watch this guy cough to the point of nearly (or actually) passing out in nearly every episode.

But this isn’t a cancer blog, this is a drug blog.  In terms of portraying bad things with a responsible degree of realism, cancer clearly sucks, but the meth business seems comparatively awesome, even though the protagonists endure innumerable risks and hardships related to the violence and sketchiness of their illicit trade.

This is a pretty bold claim for me to be making.  After all, Walt and Jesse almost die in the first episode and rolling-in-money success montages a la Scarface are few and far between.  The meth business is hardly portrayed as glamorous, but the harms of drugs don’t acquire the kind of weight and realism that make me comfortable as a substance abuse researcher.  For example, Jesse and his friends seem to functionally use meth sporadically without slipping into full-blown addiction.  In addition to flagrantly violating the Notorious B.I.G’s “10 crack commandments,” this is an egregiously casual portrayal of a hard-core drug.

This criticism disappears almost completely in season 2, where after a season and a half of transient mayhem for Walt and Jesse, their enterprise becomes stable enough for Jesse to rent a place and meet a lovely neighbor, Jane, who is a recovering addict[7].

(Spoiler alert).  While I think BB dangerously under-exaggerates the harms of methamphetamine, it makes up for this with the introduction of heroin.  Jane’s heroin overdose is the most salient resemblance of a cautionary drug tale in BB—or at least in its first 3 seasons.  Not that the characters aren’t individually tortured in different ways by their different choices, but after all, team Walt/Jesse manage to stay lucrative and alive.

On top of this, Walt is portrayed as a brilliant man and talented chemist who takes pride in the “artistry” of his meth manufacturing.  Another major plot pivot isn’t just about how the protagonist tandem stay alive making meth, but how they make the best meth in the universe.  Like Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee or Kobe beef, Walt’s meth is glamorized to a point where the quest to procure it sounds challenging and intriguing.  As in, like, in real life.  I don’t know if any impressionable scofflaws were inspired to enter the meth biz after watching BB, but I’ll bet it’s happened.

I’m both pro-responsible drug realism in TV, but I’m also pro-TV.  I understand that we can’t have edgy, innovative shows that centralize around things like meth, while: A. keeping the show watchable; and B. keeping its characters likable.  Meth has earned the recent title as the world’s “most dangerous drug.”  But heroin has historically been the world’s scariest drug, and gives meth a run for its money in the danger department too.  The key difference in 2011 is that young adult heroin use has hovered between 1-2% for decades, while meth use is entrenched at around 15%.

The show itself seems to be aware that it underexaggerates the dangers of meth, and chooses to compensate by scapegoating heroin, as if its overall portrayal of drugs, on balance, is reasonably stark.
From a responsibility standpoint I don’t think this kind of hedging quite works.  But Breaking Bad isn’t meant to be an anti-drug PSA.  It’s meant to be good fucking TV.  And it is.

With the exception of a recurring meth addicted prostitute and minor junkie characters[8], Jesse’s casual meth use never seems to visibly affect him as it arguably would in reality: his teeth remain gleaming and he never breaks out in scabs and sores like the “faces of meth.”  He looks like, well, an actor.  But this is the rule of good TV about bad subjects: you can’t have it both ways if you want it to be both stringently realistic and watchable.

Breaking Bad may downplay or even glorify some aspects of meth manufacturing, but arguably no other show on television treats death with such reference and gravity.  Walt and Jesse are not killers, so when it happens, consequences and grief carry real weight that often arc across multiple episodes.  For me, BB transitioned from simply good entertainment into something much more “real” when Walt’s DEA brother-in-law Hank goes through PTSD after a particularly gruesome series of narco-terrorism related events.

Whatever BB lacks in reverence for the risks of meth cooking, it makes up for by reminding us that there is a real drug war occurring on the border.

I’m excited to see where this goes in season 4.  I just hope there’s a lot more Saul Goodman.

[1] Pop culture is big on the internet? … No shit!
[2] Netflix also has back episodes of Mad Men, which I highly recommend for those who are nostalgic about workplace alcohol and tobacco use and retro-sexism.  As an aside, I don’t understand the Netflix backlash.  I can still “rent” three whole seasons of BB and whip through them in a week for a fraction of my monthly $10 fee, which is a huge improvement on content viewing compared to any previous legal model.  I don’t know how many discs constitute a single season, but my guess is that it would’ve cost close to $30 to rent these respective seasons at Blockbuster, even if all the discs were available.  Not to mention the hassle of having to go to an actual store and the inability to watch your goods on any TV or device, including iPads and smartphones.  What is everybody complaining about?  Plus you can activate Netflix streaming on up to 5 devices, which in my family includes my computer, iPad, my brother’s devices, all leaching from my mom’s single account.  Apparently Reed Hastings hasn’t wised up to the fact that his “egregious” new fee structure still allows anybody to basically share their account with 4 friends, which makes a tremendous value even better.  Put that in your self-loathing e-mails next time, Reed.
[3] I can’t underestimate the importance of being dexterous enough to elude being typecast.  For example, can you imagine Omar from “The Wire” in any other role? (Good luck “Boardwalk Empire”!)  This is the type of disbelief that prevented me from accepting Michael from “The Wire” as the token black kid on the new 90210.  It’s not just The Wire, Larry David and Jason Alexander famously addressed this dilemma on an episode of Curb.
[4] And he’s been nominated countless more times for Emmy’s, Golden Globes, etc.  Interestingly, he was even nominated for his supporting role in Malcolm.  However, I always like to ultimately judge the mettle of acclaimed actors by how they do hosting SNL.  In this respect, Cranston faltered, though the writers can be blamed in part for that.  By comparison, Jon Hamm was an amazing host SNL—arguably the best and most surprisingly versatile host in the past 5 years—he’s the new Tom Hanks.
[5] This might be par for the course for an on and off meth user, but I often find myself talking to my iPad or computer “chill the fuck out Jesse!”  Walt’s coughing is annoying in a purposeful, tense way.  Jesse’s constant shouting is simply annoying.
[6] Take note J.J. Abrams and creators of Lost: this is also a brilliant device for showrunners who are ambivalent about the prospects of a risqué, unorthodox serial drama.  If it doesn’t do well, then the series arc could conclude neatly when Walt succumbs to cancer.  It’s no surprise that his prognosis improves in seasons 2 and 3.
[7] And who is totally hot.  Turn the emo up on Anne Hathaway and you’ve got Krysten Ritter.
[8] One of whom, is played by Dale Dickey, who apparently has a known talent in Hollywood for playing junkies.  Not to say she’s unattractive, but with makeup, she looks strikingly like a woman from “faces of meth.”  She was also really good as a redneck rube in a bigger role in the Oscar nominated meth flick “Winter’s Bone.”


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  2. Hello,
    I just came across your blog and I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis. While I agree that the show may not show the true consequences of crystal meth... I don't think the show is necessarily about that (I think we agree on that though). But nevertheless... I believe Breaking Bad is the most effective anti-drug PSA on television because viewers truly see the consequences of a life involved with ANY types of drugs. Also, if you've seen episode "Peekaboo," viewers get a frightening portrait of a household on meth.

  3. Interesting! This is one of my alternative treatments to cancer center hopes to see. So excited and so anxious to see this!