TV wasn’t always…TV. Travel with me here. The powerhouse that is Netflix was a subscription DVD service, remember that? Even when they did get into the business of streaming, there wasn’t any original content. Yes, you actually had to wait a week to see the next episode of your favorite show. Binging consisted of watching a House marathon on a lazy Saturday afternoon. If you asked someone what their favorite show was, they’d probably say “CSI”. I put those into the category known as “grandma shows”. A show where a problem is both presented and solved in the same episode. I am well versed in the extensive history of grandma shows because I watched them all with my grandma. I once viewed TV as something you watched passively just to pass time. I never had a show that actively engaged me. My interests have always been a bit different although I still didn’t know what I was looking for back then. X-Files became my favorite show of all time but even it didn’t fall into the category of “must-see” TV for me. There are a few shows, such as Scrubs, I grew to love but there wasn’t a show I absolutely needed to watch.
So when did TV become TV? For my money, it began with a little-known spinoff channel that was once known for showing your grandmother’s favorite Charlton Heston movies. This is, of course, no disrespect to HBO’s elite roster that contains The Wire and The Sopranos. However, HBO’s motto is “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”. In 2007, a show named Mad Men kicked in the door. A year later, Breaking Bad followed the lead and ran through it. AMC instantly had two hits.
Smack dab in the middle of a writer’s strike that stripped TV bare, emerged Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad was created by Vince Gilligan, who just so happened to have worked on X-Files as well. Gilligan dared to create a concept that would break a continuous trend TV: The straight-laced good guy who always follows his moral compass in the right direction. What if the good guy was bad? What if the bad guy wasn’t really all that bad? To blur these lines, he set out to do the impossible: turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface”.
The first season was interesting. AMC ordered nine episodes but there were only seven due to the previously mentioned strike. It started out as a dark comedy. While it eventually found its footing, it’s my least favorite season. The progression beyond inaugural season cemented its place as the best TV show of all time.
Walt began his journey deeper into the underbelly of the crime world. Skyler starts off as Walt’s meek and docile wife but transforms into an analog of Lady Macbeth in this story that’s structured as a Shakespearean tragedy. Walt Jr started off eating breakfast and ended the show eating breakfast. Hank originally provided comedic relief but became a key cog in the story. Breaking Bad used each episode as a single page in the chapter that became one narrative. Each character was given a standard story arc and shifted into something unexpected. Along this journey, these characters didn’t lose anything that made them human, in fact, they became more relatable. Through Walt, we saw a character whose quest for a purpose in life ran parallel to his hunger for absolute power. Skyler’s descent into madness seemed a little more reasonable considering there’s no how-to manual of how to care for a dying husband who often disappears. Walt Jr…is still eating breakfast. Hank, once a goofball, became a beacon for all that’s honorable and decent in the world. Yet, we still viewed Walt as “the good guy”, Skyler as the crazy wife and Hank as the annoying agent who should mind his own business.
Two ideas are reinforced with this show: 1) Most people are one bad day away from being bad 2) Being bad feels really good.
Of course, any great story needs great execution. The execution is what makes Breaking Bad a revolutionary show. The writing often included subtle hints of foreshadowing. Everything was perfectly calculated and each decision made had a consequence. Many great directors passed through this show but they all honored Gilligan’s vision. Breaking Bad introduced stunning cinematography that’s still unlike anything that’s seen on TV today. This show toyed with point-of-view angles, time-lapsed montages, and even throwing a go-pro camera on a shovel.
Not to mention, these techniques were used to capture the most underrated aspect of the show which was the location. Since shooting in California would be too costly, Gilligan opted to move the location to Albuquerque, NM. Instead of pulling the magic trick where movies/TV shows shoot in Vancouver and make it look like New York City, Gilligan just changed the location of the script from Riverside, CA to Albuquerque. Albuquerque is a character in this show as much as the White family. Not only is this unassuming chemistry teacher who drives an Aztek a drug kingpin, but he’s moving world-breaking units out of New Mexico.
The blue smoke from the RV fading into the desert sky became one of TV and pop culture’s instant calling cards.
Finally, a great show, with great execution still isn’t anything without great progression and conclusion. Breaking Bad didn’t conclude being the show it set out to be but cleverly became the best version of it. Jesse was meant to be killed off at the end of the first season. Gustavo Fring was meant to be a guest character, not recurring. Saul was brought in to be the comedic relief to offset the shift in Hank’s arc. On paper, the fate of these characters was predetermined but once they came to life, they were allowed to blossom. This show always took risks. The creators made the choices that were the best even if they weren’t comfortable choices. Ultimately, these choices led to one satisfying conclusion.
Breaking Bad told a great story and did so in a revolutionary fashion. Ten years later, I still haven’t seen a show that’s so confident in every single decision it makes. Many of my favorite shows since all have a little bit of the blue smoke in their DNA. Until the throne is taken, which seems unlikely, Breaking Bad shall remain the king.