Breaking Bad: an experiment in TV viewing

Ok, first some background: apart from a few isolated hours scattered here and there – all at other people’s houses – I have not watched broadcast television for about 10 years, and I have never owned a television set.

My escape was not complete though: virtually everywhere I’ve been, and whoever I have associated with, TV has remained one of the dominant foci of other people’s lives, and naturally, they have at times imparted accounts of their own viewing. To begin with, I tried to humour them for the sake of ‘social cohesion’, but soon learned that the best way of dealing with it for me was just to get myself a name as someone who had zero interest in TV. Nonetheless, it’s incredible how mere association with the vast majority of people can provide one with a sizeable knowledge of the plotlines, dynamics and atmospheres of most TV shows, even without ever having viewed them.

Though I stopped watching television due to my utter dissatisfaction with all formats of televisual ‘entertainment’, I had long retained the worst of my scorn for ‘drama series’ that span several ‘seasons’ and that have long story arcs, some of which can often seem endless. My principal issues with these kinds of shows were that they were unnecessarily long, and that the plots were ‘filled out’ with irrelevant sub-plots, tangents, flashback sequences that added nothing to the story at all, and sometimes wholly post-modern or surreal segments (even my favourite series, one that defies nearly all of the characterisations above, The Prisoner, had that pointless ‘Western’ episode where Patrick McGoohan is a cowboy for a while). Clearly the shows are strung out in this way to keep people watching, and therefore to keep the syndicated revenue flowing. Any notion of these shows being art is rarely suggested, and even the most tenacious TV addict would chuckle if you did.

But some of these shows pose as thought-provoking, so I decided to watch one that seemed very different from others I had previously encountered. While at an acquaintance’s house last year I happened to watch the first two episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’, and so recently decided to watch the entirety of the show with an open mind, as an experiment.

I have to admit that rewatching those first two episodes was enjoyable – I think they are well written, imaginatively acted and well-polished. Beyond anything else, they are original, not just in the initial premise (a high school teacher with terminal cancer starts dealing methamphetamine to provide a future for his family) but in the initial promise (this man will be taken on an unpredictable journey that will challenge the viewer and really examine moral issues).

Unfortunately, the promise is discarded soon after these first two episodes. Soon, the pithy subplots and the meaningless ‘pause episodes’ (The Fly) emerge, and the acting crumbles to ever-more ludicrous and unrealistic depths. I’ve been told by some TV ‘insiders’ that the producers of a given program usually apply a formula that tells them when to axe the series, measured purely in terms of viewers and revenue. While things are good, there is no attempt to pretend that they consider there to be an artistic side of this form of ‘entertainment’ – the writers have no genuine incentive to provide a fixed, finite storyline such as those that appear in every other form of storytelling, and the actors are all making too much money and being drowned in adulation to care whether their performances are as fresh and energetic as they were at the beginning. When the viewers lose interest, they can just write a quick, convenient ending and ‘wrap it up’. They don’t even have to care how the show ends, because once it’s over, they can just move to the next franchise, or let the “nitwits out there in zombieland” – as the character of Wayne Gale calls them in the movie Natural Born Killers – rewatch their favourite moments when they are shown as repeats.

Unfortunately, I have neither the stomach nor the patience to fully complete my assignment. Season 5 of Breaking Bad is divided into two halves, with the second string of 8 episodes not airing until next year. So I got as far as Season 5 Episode 7 before I had to throw in the towel. In total I watched 53 episodes with a total running length of close to 40 hours – the equivalent of more than 8 movies the length of Das Boot, or 4 movies the length of Shoah. In all that time I think it would be hard to deny that not very much in the way of real drama occurs. There is just an endless sequence of small challenges for the protagonist, and a string of bad guys for him to tussle with. I am left with my original impression intact – that TV shows are like movies for people that can’t appreciate good movies. They’re bad movies that go on and on and just end suddenly when the producers decide to call it a day. Without the drama and acting and scripts that good movies have.

On reflection, I’m not sure why I began this experiment, but I hope my insights prove of some interest to someone! :D

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