‘Breaking Bad’ Elevated Television

If you’ve been out of the country for the past six years, you have an excuse for being unfamiliar with Breaking Bad, perhaps the best show that’s ever been on television.

The story of Walter White, a humble high school chemistry teacher who, upon learning he has lung cancer, decides to team up with a former student to make methamphetamines, BB portrays the transformation of White from “Mr. Chips into Scarface,” as the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, describes it.

Fresh off its Emmy award as best drama series, a recognition that was too long in coming, the question now is when will we see another TV series that is as astonishingly good?  And another question: Why is it so hard for truly excellent programming to get air time?

In his book Difficult Men, Brett Martin recounts the lengthy and harrowing path traversed by Gilligan on the way to securing a deal with AMC, one of the several channels that comprise AMC Networks.

Martin tells the tale of Gilligan’s meeting with executives of the TNT cable network, who liked the show but were afraid of the drug-making aspect of it: “We don’t want to be stereotypical philistine executives, but does it have to be meth?  We love this, but if we buy it, we’ll be fired.”

Nor was TNT the only cable network that turned thumbs down on Breaking Bad.  So too did Showtime, HBO, and FX, meaning, as Gilligan put it, “there was no place left in the known universe.”

Elsewhere in his book, Martin usefully recounts the words of the AMC executive (Rob Sorcher) who decided to take a chance on the show: “We had had success with Mad Men,” he said.  “And once you’ve had that cookie it tastes good.  You want another one.  The decision to go another way, believe me, it was … terrifying.  But once you did, once you chose quality over everything else … you could do anything.”

At a time when so much video programming – film as well as TV – is demographically driven, PC themed, and/or scripted for cardboard characters, Breaking Bad is something very different.

Incorporating tremendous writing, directing, acting, and visuals, BB delivered a series that was marked by ambiguity, complexity, surprise, and sophistication.

As many have noted, in recent years the Emmy’s have been dominated by cable rather than broadcast network programming.  Indeed, both pay and basic cable channels have gained a reputation as the place to find smarter, edgier original series like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and of course Breaking Bad (despite the initial drug-themed hesitation about BB).  And this raises the question of why much of the best programming has been gravitating to cable.  

One explanation is that broadcasting is much more heavily regulated.  For this reason, programming that is marked by sexual or violent content carries greater risk for broadcasters than for cable networks.  And the risks involved don’t issue from government only.

A case in point is the Showtime program Dexter, a series that, though critically acclaimed, features both sexual situations and violence.  In 2007, CBS announced that it was considering broadcasting reruns of Dexter over the air.  In response, a conservative group, the Parents Television Council, warned CBS affiliates to preempt the show, and threatened the show’s advertisers.

As it happened, CBS edited the reruns down to a TV-14 rating and aired them on its affiliates, but only for a single season.

None of this is to suggest that violence equals excellence, or that excellence can only be achieved with the inclusion of violence – only that where violence is a necessary ingredient in the excellent telling of a good story, its inclusion ought not to preempt the airing of it.

For years now, many people have bemoaned the “dumbing down” of America, a phenomenon defined by Wikipedia as “the deliberate diminishment of the intellectual level of the content of schooling and education, of literature and cinema, and of news and culture.”

The popular and critical success of Breaking Bad demonstrates that there is both the talent and the audience for something better.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Sept. 29, 2013.

Blessings Amid the Gloom

Just as men don’t live by bread alone, bloggers too are people of many parts.  Which is why I give you the following, all courtesy of YouTube.

Robbie Firmin, age 7, a contestant on “Britain’s Got Talent,” who reveals something about his auntie that she was probably not expecting: youtube.com/watch?v=HMNTlPa4Xi8.    

From an unemployment office in Madrid, a flashmob performs “Here Comes the Sun”:  youtube.com/watch?v=fHK2lxS5Ivw.

An orchestra, and chorus of 10,000! Japanese singers, performing (in German) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (long and grainy, but impressive and touching): youtube.com/watch?v=X6s6YKlTpfw.

And from a concert in 1980, the peerless Luciano Pavarotti sings “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot”: youtube.com/watch?v=TOfC9LfR3PI.

There are lots of problems in the world, not the least of them things that we rail against in this space, but life is not without its blessings, among which are beauty, talent, and lovely people.

After Aurora, Questioning Violent Programming (Again)

Very few columnists write as well, or as powerfully, as Peggy Noonan, and her piece last week in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Dark Night Rises” is no exception.  As with so many of Noonan’s commentaries, the strength in her column is not just in her way with words but in the fact that her opinions are well grounded in widely shared values.

So it is that when she alleges and bemoans the coarsening of popular culture, and the difficulty parents have these days in controlling the kind of things that their children get from the media, one guesses that few would disagree.

Even the ad hominem criticism in her piece – that Hollywood executives take care to insulate their own children from what they produce, and that they have “cabanas at the pool” at the Beverly Hills Hotel – doesn’t seem exorbitantly over the top given the thrust of her argument as a whole.

But when she suggests, by quoting from a writer at RealClearPolitics, that a “hundred studies have demonstrated conclusively that viewing violence on the screen increases aggression in those who watch it, children especially,” she is on shakier ground than she realizes.

In 2002, Jonathan Freedman, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, published a lengthy and devastating critique of this thesis titled “Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence.”  Some years later, Dr. Freedman wrote a paper on the same subject for The Media Institute.  That paper concluded with these words:

In sum there is no convincing scientific evidence that television violence causes children to be aggressive, or that any particular depiction of violence on television has this effect, or that it affects any particular type of children more than others … my conclusion is that either there is no effect of television violence on aggression, or, if there is an effect, it is vanishingly small.

Beyond the scientific literature, whatever its value, lie other aspects of the larger issue.  There is, for instance, the small matter of whether we, as a nation, should desire for everyone only that kind of programming that is fit for children.

And then there’s the issue of violence as a literary device.  Noonan is right to ridicule some past attempts by Hollywood executives to “rationalize and defend” what they produce.  But the problem with any wholesale denunciation of program violence is that it doesn’t allow much respect for programming that, though featuring violent portrayals, is terrific all the same.

A great case in point is the production, being shown on the AMC cable network, called “Breaking Bad.”  It is the story of one Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, having contracted terminal cancer, takes to making methamphetamine.  “Breaking Bad” has, in its fifth season, become increasingly violent as Walter, in addition to his meth cooking, has become a murderer in the company of murderers.  So violent?  Yes.  But this is also one of the most brilliant series, of any genre, ever shown on TV.

It may be cold comfort to parents overwhelmed by the programs and platforms accessible by their children, but the only practical solution to the problem is parental oversight and responsibility for what their children watch.  Everything else – from exhortations to put the cultural genie back in the bottle, to governmental policies that attempt to circumvent First Amendment case law – is doomed to frustrate and to fail.

But that’s the thing about free speech. It’s not a prophylactic to be deployed against pictures, words, or ideas, it’s a necessary precursor to every other freedom.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

‘The Ladykillers’ and the Critics

It’s with great trepidation that I say something that may offend.  Let me apologize, in advance and profoundly, if that’s the case.  I know I’ll have to live with this for the rest of my life.  This said, here ’tis: I like blues and gospel music.  More than this, I prefer African-American blues and gospel music.

I don’t know why this is, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t because I’m biased against whites.  I think it could be because it sounds good.  Anyhow, I was powerfully reminded of this, and other things, when I caught AMC’s premiere last month of the remake of the 1950s British comedy classic, “The Ladykillers.”

Directed by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, and starring Tom Hanks, the American version had its U.S. theatrical debut in 2004, and has since been dubbed “one of the best Tom Hanks films you’ve never seen.”

For those not familiar with the British version starring Alec Guinness, of which the Coens’ film is a “retelling,” “The Ladykillers” is the story of a band of ne’er-do-wells who, in the guise of a “classic music ensemble,” rent a basement flat that abuts the counting room of a nearby riverboat casino.  The group’s intention is to tunnel into the casino’s vault, under cover of the (recorded) sound of their instruments in practice.

So that’s the storyline.  But the point here isn’t so much to provide a review as it is to register a few paragraphs in criticism of how a film as good as this could go six years before most people had even heard of it.

A lot of the problem, I think, has to do with the reviewers.  Reading now what they wrote then raises the question: Who are these people?  Even accounting for the fact that their reviews were of the theatrical version, and not the edited one shown on AMC, it’s almost beyond belief that most were so negative and that virtually none of them even mentioned the music.

This omission is remarkable because “The Ladykillers” is filled, not just on the soundtrack but also on camera, by fabulous gospel singing.  Sung by such as the Soul Stirrers, Rose Stone (sister of Sly), The Venice Four, and the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir, featured performances include rousing renditions of “Trouble of This World” and “Let the Light From the Lighthouse Shine on Me.”

Credit for the inclusion of these groups belongs to T-Bone Burnett, who was the music producer on “The Ladykillers” and also on the earlier Coen brothers’ production, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Never mind for a minute the joy of seeing Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before, or a spot-on performance by Irma P. Hall; the music in this production is among its most prominent features, and for reviewers to have ignored it completely says much more about them than anything they have to say about the movie.

It’s always a risky thing to attempt a remake of a classic, but it’s made nearly impossible when, as here, the reviewers are tone deaf.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Orts and All

FCC’s "OpenInternet"

The FCC website, now in Beta, called OpenInternet.Gov is interesting.  It’s not great, but it’s better than you might expect and sort of refreshing.

Ostensibly given over to a public discussion of the “important issues facing the Internet,” the site’s primary focus is on one issue facing the Internet: Chairman Genachowski’s plans to extend and codify the FCC’s so-called Internet principles.

Unlike the FCC’s main site, which is as unreliable as it is difficult to navigate, OpenInternet actually works pretty well.  Much more importantly, it’s attracting, in addition to fans and the usual sycophants, a fair number of people who are critical of the Commission’s plans.

The public’s views are communicated in two ways, through the posting of opinions on the “Join the Discussion” page, and by posting comments there and on the “OpenInternet Blog” page.  Check it out.

Love That AMC

Close observers of this blog will remember an earlier piece written in appreciation of the impressive AMC series “Breaking Bad.”  Yesterday’s was the penultimate show this season of the other award-winning AMC series, “Mad Men.”  And coming to AMC on Nov. 15 is a miniseries remake of the classic 1960s series, “The Prisoner.”

All of which begs the question: What’s the deal with AMC?  Are they trying to make us love them?  If so, they’re succeeding.

Hugo Chavez and Friends

Many of the editors at a magazine I used to work for had “laws.”  One’s law was “never go west of Fifth Avenue unless you absolutely have to.”  Another’s was “the love of evil is the root of all money.”  But the one that I recall most often was “when you find a good thing run it into the ground.”  (The same person who authored that law once told me that in order to handle New York cabbies you need to have iron lungs, a nasty disposition, and a law degree, and he had all three.)

Anyhow, I’m reminded of the “good thing” law whenever I reflect on the endless joy it gives me to say something truly unkind about people who’ve earned it.  It’s in this spirit that I’m pleased to present this week’s Trousered Ape Award to Sean Penn, Danny Glover, and Oliver Stone (who also receives a Golden Homunculus), for their support of Hugo Chavez at precisely that moment when he’s cracking down on free speech, and every other human right, in Venezuela.  One can only wonder where we’d be, as a nation, without such people.

Keeping the Bluest of the Blues Alive

For those whose professional lives are spent in or around politics there is often a yearning for something that unifies.  This, because even at its best politics is a science of division, where people are separated – by class, philosophy, interest, geography – into voting blocs.

This yearning helps explain the extraordinary popularity, in Washington, of the Redskins, one of the very few interests in the nation’s capital around which people of every belief can and do rally.  Art is another such interest – where, that is, it is innocent of overt political manipulation.

So it is, for some of us, with blues music, the musical form created by African-Americans in the South in the late 1800s, and which has contributed so much to jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

Reference is often made to particular genres or styles of blues music – such as the Delta, Piedmont, or Chicago blues – but in the opinion of one who has studied this matter closely, the reality is a little more complex.  The truth, according to Tim Duffy, is that the music played even by musicians who are said to be of a certain style is highly individualistic, a fact that takes on a special poignancy given the advanced age of so many of these musicians, many of whom have never even been recorded and who live, in their old age, in poverty.

In an effort to assist these people, and to preserve and promote their music, Duffy and his wife, Denise, formed the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) in 1994.  Sporting the motto, “keeping the bluest of the blues alive,” MMRF assists in myriad ways: by providing everyday living expenses for some, and by recording and arranging for promotional tours, here and abroad, for others.

A perfect example of what a national treasure is at stake can be found in the life and music of the late Etta Baker.  The woman whom NPR referred to as the “world’s premier Piedmont-style blues guitarist,” Baker played the guitar and banjo from age 3 until her death, a few years back, at 93.  Her skill and renown notwithstanding, it wasn’t until 1991, when Etta was 78, that her own first (authorized) recording was released.  You can listen to some of her works, available on the MMRF website, here.

On Oct. 15, The Media Institute will host its 18th annual Friends & Benefactors Awards Banquet.  As we always do on such occasions, we are going to recognize the good works of some people in government and the media.  But this year we are also going to salute the Music Maker Relief Foundation, for the role they play in advancing and preserving this uniquely American form of speech.