Every once in awhile something happens in medialand that elevates and refreshes, and at least partially reclaims the enormous potential of the industry. Media coverage of the events of 9/11 is one example, and the minor miracle that is AMC’s series "Breaking Bad" is another.
For the uninitiated, who unfortunately are legion, "Breaking Bad" is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, discovering that he has late-stage lung cancer, embarks on a career as a methamphetamine producer.
As measured by the awards, which already include a Peabody and two Emmys, and by the reviews, "BB" has already established itself as perhaps the best show on television. The writing, acting, directing, and camera work are achingly good. Unlike the X-rated products that are consumed by people with the emotional maturity of children, whatever their age, "Breaking Bad" really is adult entertainment.
In this brilliant series human beings are complex, neither all good nor all bad, itself a kind of challenge to a world immersed in the poses and pieties of political correctness. And then there’s the subtlety of it; the communication, with no more than a look or a word, of a world of meaning.
But the best is the essential humanity of the production — the notion that, no matter how unequal our circumstances, we are essentially the same, and capable of great understanding and empathy. How else to explain the poignant and touching relationship between Walter and Jesse, Walt’s wayward former student and now partner in crime?
Because of the way the series ended its second season — and because the producer (Vince Gilligan) has told us so — we know that "BB" will be back for a third year, a fact that virtually guarantees more awards and critical acclaim. And that’s all to the good. But there are aspects of this phenomenon that invite some further comment that go not to art but to the lesser realms of politics and commerce.
One such observation is the folly of trying to enforce content standards on TV fare where no account is given to the context in which certain words or pictures are used. "Breaking Bad" features a number of words, and acts of violence, which by themselves might offend some people. But where, as here, such things are employed not to titillate but to deepen and extend the reality of the experience, one would think many people might see what a mistake it is to allow any kind of governmental censoring scheme that is blind to such distinctions.
The commercial aspect of this show that rankles a bit is the fact of its distribution by American Movie Classics (AMC), owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, itself a subsidiary of the cable operator, Cablevision Systems. Which is not to say anything derogatory about AMC. Far from it, the network, and all involved, should be enormously proud of what they’re delivering. (Which, by the way, also includes the terrific original series, "Mad Men.")
But why, one wonders, isn’t "Breaking Bad" being shown on one of the bigger cable networks, or indeed on one of the broadcast networks? Kind of hard to imagine that AMC was the producer’s first choice when, were the show being aired on USA or TNT — not to mention, say, ABC — the audience would likely be orders of magnitude larger. One assumes it may have something to do with the very qualities that make the show so rewarding —that it’s seen as too smart or sophisticated for a mass audience.
If so, that’s a shame, both for the country and for the industry, and something that’s being noted. As Tim Goodman, TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and enthusiastic fan of the series, put it: “It’s like I’ve been freed from the tyranny of network programming.”