While networks like CBS continue to earn great ratings by pumping out mediocrity, the best show currently on television just finished its fourth season on the basic cable channel AMC. Per episode, it barely manages to pull in 1.5 million viewers.
Yet those who haven’t been watching are missing one of the most reliably tense, haunting and well-performed shows in the history of television: “Breaking Bad.” What began as an interesting little story about a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth has become a captivating tale about the potential for true evil in us all. Over the course of four seasons, protagonist Walter White has changed from a mostly harmless human being into someone who will gladly pull a gun on his enemy without a second’s thought.
All this has been achieved thanks to several factors, chief among them the slow, deliberate writing style of creator Vince Gilligan and his staff. Examining where the show’s characters are now in relation to the first episode is startling, but it would have been hard to accept had the show accomplished it all in a single season. Like the classic HBO drama “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” is a show that takes advantage of the television medium. It gives storytellers an opportunity to make each episode like a chapter in a large, epic novel.
In that fashion, each season of “Breaking Bad” has been about taking White (Bryan Cranston) one level deeper into immorality. In the first season, nearly an entire episode was devoted to Walter’s inability to kill somebody. In this fourth season, he never even reconsiders when faced with such a dilemma. In fact, the final shot of this last finale hints that White is willing to fall even deeper into the black hole.
It’s not as if the show has been wholly ignored. For his performance in the show’s first three seasons, Cranston won an Emmy each and every year (he was not nominated this year because the show wasn’t eligible). His co-star Aaron Paul, as White’s partner Jesse, also won for his performance in the third season. The awards are noticing, the critics are noticing, yet mass audiences aren’t tuning in.
There are several reasons for this. Serialized shows such as “Breaking Bad” and the aforementioned “The Wire” rely so heavily on what has come before that jumping in at any point is ultimately an unwise endeavor. To fully comprehend the show’s impact, you must grab the DVDs (or go on Netflix) and watch from the beginning. Not many people have this kind of time or patience, and thus weekly procedurals and unambitious sitcoms will always dominate the ratings while masterpieces of storytelling like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” remain little more than cult obsessions.
It’s a shame, but it’s just another example of the eternal clash between those who approach movies and television as art and those who approach it merely as entertainment. How else could one explain how a film like “Drive” can gain universal critical acclaim yet turn off everybody else? It’s because different people like different things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. “Breaking Bad” fans want to be told a story, “Two and a Half Men” fans just want to laugh for 30 minutes and move on with their lives.