Film

The subtlety of television

Positive manipulation and the world of Breaking Bad

I'm always surprised by how few people I know are familiar with Breaking Bad. The show is critically acclaimed, considered by many (including myself) to be the best show on TV. Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays the protagonist Walter White, has won the Emmy for Best Actor two seasons in a row. My mom hipped me to this show and the last thing she introduced me to was the concept of eating with cutlery.

I didn't watch it at first because the basic premise of the show seems somehow gimmicky and hollow. How do I usually spin it for people? "Well, it's the dad from Malcolm in the Middle playing a high school science teacher who finds out that he has terminal cancer and decides to make meth to pay for it. But deep down, it explores complex ethical questions, the structure of the family unit and represents possibly the first welcome case of audience manipu—" That's when I usually get cut off and told about a smoke monster and two dudes with black-and-white outfits. Right.

The lynchpin of the show is Walt, who is possibly the most dynamic character in the history of television. He somehow oscillates between being brilliant, completely self-absorbed and evil, yet somehow still manages to be sympathetic in the end. Bryan Cranston does something I don't see often in this medium: when his character is telling a lie (which is quite often), he has perfected the appearance of someone who is bad at doing it. It's like double acting: we see someone who is lying but is trying to cover it up and looks uncomfortable doing it but not to the point that the person he is lying to catches on. Though you occasionally get the blood and the explosions, at its core Breaking Bad is about subtlety.

When Walt realizes he needs a street name, he comes up with the nerdy Heisenberg, a reference to the guy who came up with the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. Touches like these are a part of what makes a show like Breaking Bad so special: they know the kind of audience they've attracted. TV has evolved to the point that everything doesn't have to be explained to the viewer. If the show creates a precedent of intelligence in its content, that is now reflected back by the viewer.

Small things like how Jane, a character from season two, happens to have a drawing of Ouroboros (the snake eating its tail representing the cyclical nature of life) in her room aren't pivotal to the story but are extremely thoughtful if you notice them.Through its three season run, Vince Gilligan and the staff behind Breaking Bad have mined several different directing styles for use within the show's universe. They once had a Mexican banda open a show with a music video regaling us about the sprawl of Heisenberg's product. Los Pollos Hermano, a fried chicken chain that becomes very important later in the series, gets the commercial treatment with a big punchline at the end. Attorney Saul Goodman (brilliantly played by Mr Show's Bob Odenkirk) has hilarious public access style ads for his low brow legal service. There is a seemingly unlimited, imaginative vision of what can be included in a serial dramatic program within this show.

Entertainment is transparent and never more so than through the television medium. Music is usually a mood enhancer like alcohol. We choose to listen to sad music to make us feel better when we are sad. We listen to party music before we go to the club. Things aren't as cut and dry with Breaking Bad. We aren't trying to solve some big mystery or get some giggles for 30 minutes. It's the strength of the narrative that drives us to care about what will come next. And when we get to certain points, our thoughts and emotions are used against us but not in a cheap, unwelcome way. This is a meticulous show that assumes a high knowledge base in the viewer and subverts their expectations accordingly. And that to me is very exciting. V

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