What is this thing you call “Breaking Bad”?

So apparently there was some big TV event yesterday?  If my Twitter feed is any indication, there was essentially nothing worth discussing except what was going to happen on the season finale of “Breaking Bad.”

It made me feel so lonely.water-cooler-for-office

You see, I have never seen an episode of “Breaking Bad.”  Not one.  I have a vague sense that it involves a chemistry teacher gone rogue and crystal meth, but that about does it.  And that it stars Bryan Cranston, so sublimely befuddled on “Malcolm in the Middle” and (even I cannot miss this) much different on this newer show.

Sadly, it’s not just “Breaking Bad.”  I have never seen an episode of “The Sopranos.”  Or “The Wire.”  Or “Game of Thrones.”  Or “Mad Men.”

Back when they were on, I caught a teensy bit of “24” and “Lost.”  I cashed in my chips on the first one pretty early, because it was clear it required more of a commitment than I was willing to make.  And the latter seemed to be a gigantic pile of “WTF?!?” the one time I watched it, a sense cemented by the fact that none of the seasoned viewers I was watching with had any ability to make things clearer.

In fact, the only television drama juggernaut I’ve caught in its entirety is “Downton Abbey.”  Contributing factors to that outcome include: 1) my best friend liked it, 2) I love “Gosford Park” and 3) handsome men in tuxedos.  But I also, no joke, found myself thinking “Dear God, everyone’s watching these shows. I must find at least one to watch myself!

I’m not kidding.  I really thought that.

Please don’t get me wrong.  My lack of viewing has nothing to do with a foolish belief that these shows aren’t actually worth watching.  Unlike other programs whose appeals elude me utterly, I have no doubt that “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” are high-quality entertainments and genuine works of art.  I do not have disdain for television as a medium, and would go to bat for any number of programs that I do happen to enjoy myself.

I just don’t particularly like television dramas that much.  The Better Half enjoys them more than I do, though he tends to prefer admittedly soapier offerings.  (“Scandal’ has some pulpy appeal, despite its manifest silliness.  Every time I catch any of “Revenge” I find myself hoping that all the major characters would plunge into a massive sinkhole at once.)  Any program that I can’t enjoy if I haven’t seen the previous five episodes seems like too much work.

But despite my reluctance to get sucked into watching something I know I’ll want to complete once I get drawn in, I can’t ignore the feeling that I really am missing something by not viewing these shows.  Perhaps it would be going too far to equate ignorance of “The Wire”‘s intricacies with never seeing “Hamlet”… but perhaps it wouldn’t be, either.  I have the same kind of nagging guilt about missing Tony Soprano’s saga that I do about puttering out midway through “The Guermantes Way,” knowing all too well that I’m missing something truly worthwhile.  (Not you, Pynchon.  You and I are through.)

The one thing that strikes me about these shows is how they belie a piece of conventional wisdom about our age.  For all the commentary I hear about how our popular culture is no longer the monolith it was when the Big Three networks held sway, it is obvious that it hasn’t shattered into a millions disparate shards yet, either.  Perhaps the Peacock and the Eye can no longer say “Watch this, America!” with as much authority (and, having seen reruns of “The Facts of Life” not too long ago, I think we should all be glad of that), but we still watch much the same thing as each other.  It is, if anything, a happy thing for our culture that it’s the quality of the product that draws viewers rather than a simple lack of alternatives.

We don’t have a literal water cooler to stand around in my office, and I don’t know what people would talk about if we did.  But insofar as the social media I peruse make a decent stand-in, it seems everyone’s talking about the same thing in a manner similar to how they probably talked about “LA Law” back in the day.  At least that’s how it looks from outside.

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46 thoughts on “What is this thing you call “Breaking Bad”?


  1. Russel, don’t worry. Your not the only person who doesn’t watch Breaking Bad or much tv at all. ND and I aren’t big TV watchers. This means you are in good company. My usual TV watching is puttign on TCM or PBS. Otherwise I prefer to reading, internet, books when it comes to background noise. I attempted to watch the prestiege cable shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and last night, Hello Ladies and just really can’t get into them.

    Its also debatable how many people really watch these shows. There viewership is in the low millions, which isn’t that great in country with over 310 million people. More people follow Duck Dynasty and other reality TV shows than they do the prestiege shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men.

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  2. Russell,

    I can’t speak for all the shows, but the conversation around most of them, BrBa in particular, outsized the actual viewing audience. BrBa didn’t break 5 million viewers until this most recent season (though there were a lot of binge watchers on Netflix). However, the show resonated with people who tend to be in influential circles when it comes to pop culture. They are shows that are wildly popular with young white males who are well educated. Those people tend to drive national conversations in disproportionate ways. You’d get the impression that EVERYONE watched the BrBa finale last night. Yet I bet a poll here would reveal maybe 1/4 of us actually did. There is a real disconnect between the size of the viewing audience for these shows and the size of the conversation. Which says nothing about their quality, but everything about how you end up feeling the way you do about such “events”.

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    • I find online conversation about ‘quality’ TV to be fairly significantly driven by women writers of various stripes actually, compared to much of the rest of online discussion. Perhaps that’s a function of what and whom I happen to read.

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      • I don’t read a ton of TV-specific writers, though some writers I do read sprinkle in references even if they aren’t doing formal critiques/commentary. Of the female writers you read who wrote about BrBa, how did they tend to respond to Skylar? The hate her character generated was really fierce and ugly in some circles, with much of what I saw coming from men (something she addressed in a NY Times Op-Ed). How did the women writers take to her/write about her?

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      • Most of what I have read about Breaking Bad has in fact been women writers responding to (mostly male) negative fan reaction to Skylar. But the negative reaction to Skylar from what I have picked up has been mostly at the stage of visceral fan-hate; by the time it gets processed into considered online commentary it seems to have become reaction to that reaction that defends and lionizes Skylar, often written by women. And as anon-watcher of the show but reader of the internet, for whatever reason, that latter is mostly what I seem to run across – I’ve only actually seen the initial Skylar-hate in its natural habitat a small number of times. Again, I could just be a stray data point on this.

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    • I think Kazzy is quite on to something here. I think the most pertinent aspect here is social class. Which should surprise nobody. Breaking Bad seems to have particular appeal among educateds and the affluent. Those far enough removed from the drug trade and the concomitant crime to be fascinated by it. And with a white, educated guy as the lead. (Insert disclaimer about not having seen the program… yet.)

      McArdle has some interesting thoughts on the phenomenon. I disagree with some of it, though it got wheels turning in my mind.

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  3. Like you, Russell, I’ve never seen a single episode of Breaking Bad. I understand it was quite good.

    I’ve seen about twenty minutes of Mad Men. Less of Sons of Anarchy. Dexter apparently had a cult following. I might have seen ten seconds of the intro credits. I watched the pilot of Lost and despite being intrigued never summoned up the interest to see anything else.

    Game of Thrones, I like. But not enough to pay for HBO to watch it. So I’m a season behind. And I only like it because a) I read the books and enjoy seeing the visualization of that content I already knew and b) it’s sexytime a lot on Game of Thrones. When I find a season somewhere for free or if it gets on Netflix then sure.

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  4. We don’t have cable so there are a lot of shows we don’t watch. Also, who has *time* for that when I could be reading the incredible long comment threads on Ordinary Times? :)
    We did get NetFlix streaming last year, and have had a few series that we’ve watched delayed a bit. But, mainly, the TV stays off and it’s not missed.

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  5. I’m a fifth. I actually own the first season on DVD via my sister, but I just don’t really care enough to get started. I have to admit it’s a little unsettling seeing a show take over the culture like this. There’s something a little more unsettling about it when it’s on cable – it illustrates a divide that I think was less there when these shows were on broadcast TV. Not that it doesn’t seem like nearly everyone has cable these days (though less so premium), but in fact they don’t, not compared to the ubiquity of people with a TV and a (digital) antenna – hence the divide. This from someone with cable.

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    • Fully conceding that my social circle does not span the entirety of the socioeconomic spectrum, all of my friends who do not have cable (a decided majority) do not lack it because of affordability. Finances factored in to the extent that they thought their money was better spent elsewhere and/or they saw it as wasteful to spend it on something they didn’t use/already paid for (via Netflix)/could get for free (via piracy). But all of them could afford and simply opted out.

      I don’t know how representative this is of anything beyond my little corner of the universe.

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      • I wsn’t linking it to affordability at all; my mom and stepdad certainly could afford cable if they wanted; it’s just not important to them. But they certainly have almost no idea the show exists (except maybe via picking up on my sister’s fanhood on Facebook). I’m just observing (perhaps wrongly) that there’s more of a divide in who gets swept up in these TV phenomena and who doesn’t (meaning that actually fewer people do) when they’re on cable than when they still occurred around shows on broadcast – whatever the causes or consequences.

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  6. I haven’t seen any of the above-mentioned shows either. It’s kind of a point of pride with me. And it’s not because we don’t have cable (although, given my choice, we’d be limited to basic). I also never watched Dexter. Funny, but a show about a detective who was also a serial killer held zero appeal for me. And that show about zombies a lot of my friends are into–yuck. Same for True Blood, which my husband loves. A major gross out.

    I think I’m pretty much of a pop culture drop out.

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    • I’ve watched 2 of the shows mentioned in the post: Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle. I suppose I just like Bryan Cranston.

      I suspect I’ve seen more Housewives, Dance Moms, Catfish, etc., than most people here, though, so I can’t claim pop culture ignorance.

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      • I’m fairly up on the TV shows du jour (though I don’t keep up with movies very well anymore). But what really amazes me is how much music I consume, without being exposed to much current “pop” stuff.

        I’m not bragging, not at all; it’s just now possible (because of the niche tailoring available, and sheer volume of music available) to cocoon yourself in your own preferred music streams, and avoid exposure to most others entirely, in a way that wasn’t possible when I was younger.

        I couldn’t hum a bar of “Poker Face”, or “Call Me Maybe” (to name two songs that I understand were big pop hits). I wasn’t a Madonna fan, but you can be darn sure I knew “Vogue” etc. Because she was inescapable – radio, MTV, you were gonna hear Madonna tunes. But I’d have to actively seek out Lady Gaga, even though she’s a big star (she IS a big star, right? If not, fill in the newest big thing, my point probably still stands.)

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      • My girlfriend (she and I really need to come up with a nickname for her like Maribou or Zazzy… Marazzy?) is incredibly in touch with pop culture, music and otherwise. We’re going to see a band on Thursday that, I gather, is pretty popular among the kids these days, but that until she told me she had tickets, I had never heard of. I’ve seen those housewives, dance moms, Kardashians, and such because she watches them. It’s a social thing for her, in fact: she watches them and talks about it in real time on Twitter, with everyone generally ragging on the people in the shows. It’s really kind of funny and fun, sort of like multi-participant digital MST3K or Master Pancake Theater (for the Austin folks… all 1 other of them). I’m an absolutely terrible participant though, because I simply cannot keep up. I’ve watched her Twitter feed fly during an episode of Intervention, so that while I’m still trying to figure out what the first tweet meant, it has scrolled off the screen and there are 30 more that came after it.

        I’d recommend joining us for one of these shows, but something tells me y’all wouldn’t be any better at keeping up than I am.

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    • I end up gathering some minor tidbits of pop tv culture at the gym. While i always listen to music on my ipod there really isn’t anything to watch except for scanning the bank of tvs. Sometimes there might be a game on but that can rarely occupy me enough. So i know what the Karsashians and Nancy Grace look like. I found out what a honey boo boo was and that most channels have some version of reality tv shows. Even a minute of most of them without even hearing any of the shows seems unbearable.

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  7. I read where the final episode of BrBa brought in 10 million viewers (I get the fact that that number doesn’t include streaming and piracy, etc.). The final episode of M*A*S*H caught somewhere around 120 million viewers. The gigantic headline “social event” “must see” elements of current top programming depends on far fewer viewers and yet seems to gather an equal amount of attention. One of my nature films garnered 20 mill on PBS a couple of decades ago — but, trust me, you don’t know my name. My best bud was a regular bit player on M*A*S*H, but you don’t know him either. Maybe 10 million viewers isn’t a “shard,” but it’s not a tidal wave. I’m puzzled by both the business model of Amazon, and by the great attention that entertainments that aren’t reaching that large a percentage of us are getting. Not annoyed or anything, just puzzled.

    Somehow we aren’t really watching the same things as each other, but we are talking as if we do. Curious.

    For the record, we binge-watched the whole of BrBa on Netflix in the past couple of weeks and were blown away by its excellence. Tomorrow night — back to “Foyle’s War.”

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  8. I only started watching Breaking Bad for the last six episodes or so, but I’ve gotten absorbed in it pretty quickly. It’s an excellently-done show. (The premise and characters aren’t ones I could put up with for five seasons, though, so I’m glad I just got in at the end.)

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  9. Another factor with a show like BrBa is that it is dark and sometimes uncomfortable to watch. Some people do not want their entertainment to be dark. Some people want their entertainment to be light and fun.

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  10. I generally miss a lot of these shows, too. I’ve never seen “Breaking Bad,” and I’ve seen only 1 or 2 episodes of the Wire, and maybe half an episode each of Mad Men and Sopranos. I didn’t really like what I’ve seen of any of them, but I imagine I’d have to watch more to have an informed opinion.

    I really did like Downton Abbey and Friday Night Lights, having seen both on Netflix, (and I recommend the latter to Russell or to anyone).

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      • I saw EITS a couple times a ways back and enjoyed them. But I tried to listen to the one LP I have (Those Who Tell The Truth etc., etc.) recently and barely made it through one side; I was so impatient with it.

        That whole genre, unfortunately, got pretty oversaturated. I still listen to Mogwai sometimes, but I went and saw Mono not too long ago and was pretty bored with it. Without vocals it’s harder to distinguish one song (or band) from another, especially when they are all largely relying on the same structural/dynamic bag of tricks that run all the way back to Slint (but without Slint’s weird dissonances).

        I understand EITS did the FNL movie (didn’t see it) soundtrack, but I don’t think they are used much, if at all, in the TV show (though the show’s composer/musical director/whatever did the theme and maybe some incidental music in a somewhat similar style – and the show’s theme and opening credits are some of my favorites from any TV show ever, I never skipped them).

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      • Yeah, I didn’t think they did the TV show, but FNL made me think of them.

        Being from Austin, they used to play here all the time, and I remember the first time I saw them, probably in ’00, because it was the only time that I’ve ever seen a band explain their show to the audience beforehand. They basically said, “We’re going to do something different. Please bear with us.”

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  11. Breaking Bad was entertaining, but it wasn’t great TV in the sense that a lot of people are making it out to be. The other shows you mention are the usual suspects for (recent) great shows, but of those I think only The Sopranos was truly excellent. I would put The Sopranos in the same category as the best literature or theater — a combination of writing/acting/production that makes episodic TV resonate as deeply as any art form.

    Other shows that approach that level of greatness — Six Feet Under, and one that rarely gets mentioned, Rome. And, now that I think about it, those are all HBO shows. So congrats HBO!

    If you don’t watch any of these, and want to dip your toe in, try The Sopranos. And don’t start in the middle … try season one, episode 1.

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  12. If the total amount of time you’ve spent on Twitter exceeds the time you’ve spent watching Breaking Bad, your priorities are seriously out of whack.

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    • False. Twitter is talking to people (in short bursts, but that’s largely how talking to people is done. In some ways even blog comments are less like real conversation in text form than are texts and tweets). Watching Breaking Bad is watching TV. Talking to people is, always has been, and always will be > watching TV.

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      • Fair enough, bad conversation can be worse than good TV. But conversation on Twitter like everywhere else can be good or bad, and the 140 character limit simply doesn’t present much of a barrier to expression when engaged in conversation on Twitter. You can overcome it in all kinds of ways, most prominently by issuing strings of tweets, which thoughtful interlocutors will pay attention to. What Mike said remains false inasmuch as it simply depends what you’ve gained from your conversations on Twitter. Your priorities aren’t out of whack if you’ve spent more time getting the perspectives on a range of subjects from people you probably wouldn’t have interacted with so iteratively anywhere else than you have watching the TV series Breaking Bad.

        I’m detecting some serious ‘This is what the young people do; it is therefore without value and possibly pernicious’ bias in the way a number of commenters here talk about Twitter lately. It’s hard to take seriously & I’m left wondering if the people making grand claims about its lack of value and the effects it’s having on modern thought have actually spent much time at all actually using the service and finding out what its real utilities and limitations are.

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  13. The thing about Breaking Bad is that it is a character study. It’s along the same veins of most modernist works of literature. And…. Like it or not, tv is the ne venue for ‘literature’.
    There have been plenty of tv shows, but what I think stands out most about Breaking Bad is the fact that it is a well executed work of modernism in the same vein of ‘As I Lie Dying’ but I don’t think most of the viewer saw it the way, most were rather drawn into the critical acclaim and genuine appreciation from true fans of modernism rather than their own opinions. What they liked was not the subtle character study but the story of a good man gone bad executed well with a moral aspect that they could analyze and admonish.

    But, to conclude, Breaking Bad is the contemporary rendition of modernist literature. Anyone who writes books now is, unfortunately, on the B level. True authors, for better or worse, go to television

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