Monday, August 1, 2011

Are You Breaking Bad?

Breaking Bad is (allegedly) one of the best shows on TV.  I say allegedly because I haven't seen it.  My TV watching habits are pretty strange:  I don't watch drama on TV.  I watch scripted comedy (Community, Modern Family) and reality (Top Chef, Project Runway) and a couple studio comedies (The Colbert Report, Conan).  I don't watch anything serious on television, except the Friday analysis of Shields and Brooks on the PBS Newshour.

I've been told I'm wrong 100 times, and told I'm missing out 1,000, but I think I just can't believe that great dramatic writers, actors, and directors are working on TV.  I mean, if they were so great, wouldn't they be making movies?  You don't see Charlie Kaufman-scripted, Ridley Scott-directed, Daniel Day-Lewis-starring television shows.

The shows most referenced by people who tell me I'm wrong are The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.  These are supposed to be the creme de la creme of recent television drama.  But I don't want to talk about their quality today.  Today I want to talk about an article written about these shows by a favorite writer of mine:  Chuck Klosterman.  In his article, Klosterman argues that Breaking Bad is the best of these shows, because it is the only one which "is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice."  He implicity criticizes Mad Men for enabling viewers to dismiss the bad things done by its characters as "just how it was back then" because the show is set in the 1960s. He similarly levels critiques at The Sopranos and The Wire for filtering all "good" deeds through the filter of everyone on the show's being involved in the mob, or being drug dealers and/or corrupt, respectively.

It is only Breaking Bad, of these four shows, which gives it characters "personal agency," or what we might call "free will," according to Klosterman.  Breaking Bad is the story of a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer, who takes to dealing drugs to provide for his family as he faces his own death.  Klosterman describes a scene

"in which Walter White (Bryan Cranston)'s  hoodrat lab assistant Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tells Walter he just can't "break bad," and — when you first hear this snippet of dialogue — you assume what Jesse means is that you can't go from being a law-abiding chemistry teacher to an underground meth cooker. It seems like he's telling White that he can't start breaking the law after living a life in which laws were always obeyed, and that a criminal lifestyle is not something you can join like a club. His advice seems pragmatic, and it almost feels like an artless way to shoehorn the show's title into the script. But this, it turns out, was not Jesse's point at all. What he was arguing was that someone can't "decide" to morph from a good person into a bad person, because there's a firewall within our personalities that makes this impossible. He was arguing that Walter's nature would stop him from being bad, and that Walter would fail if tried to complete this conversation. But Jesse was wrong. He was wrong, because goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else."

Wow.  "Goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else."  A couple of counterpoints:  Steven Hyden, a critic for The A.V. Club, calls Breaking Bad 
"a masterfully suspenseful crime drama, [which] deals with troubling, real-life subject matter in frank, no-holds-barred fashion: the fragility of life and family, the potential for evil lurking inside good people, the possibility that humanity is a ruthless me-first game with no rules or order."
What Hyden calls "the potential of evil lurking inside good people," Jesus might call white-washed tombs...people who only appear to be "good" (Matthew 23:27).  The Psalmist says,
"I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:3-5).
So is Breaking Bad the best show on TV because of it's courageous depiction of human beings as free agents, able to choose between right and wrong?  Or is Klosterman crazy?  I'd answer these questions myself, but there was a Mythbusters marathon on, and I missed Breaking Bad all together.

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