‘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.

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.