Breaking Bad turns 10: How this meth-fueled crime drama filled The Wire-sized void on TV
In loving memory of Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan's gritty crime drama has cemented its place in the pantheon of all-time great TV shows.
Editor's note: When Breaking Bad premiered exactly 10 years ago on 20 January, 2008, its chemistry and drug business lessons filled a massive void left by The Wire and saved potential thousands from an acute case of binge-watching blues. Here's a story of one of those poor souls.
You know that carefree feeling when you've immersed yourself in a TV show with a richly detailed world — one with its own unique history, politics and vocabulary? I'm sure you do.
And what about the emptiness you feel when you realise the show is about to come to an end and you'll miss that safety of losing yourself in a reality that's not your own? You're suddenly prodded into consciousness by these overwhelming feelings of panic and social anxiety, and as you're compelled to face your fears and responsibilities again, your stress levels start to soar up?
I'm sure many of you have experienced it at some point. Like me and millions of other TV fiends, you are suffering from PTSD or Post TV-show Stress Disorder.
I had a particularly severe case of it in March 2008. Just the previous year, I had discovered HBO's The Wire and after binge-watching the first four seasons, I was absolutely awe-struck by its authenticity, its message, its storytelling and, of course, its characters. Creator David Simon's gripping, unmatched portrait of life in inner-city Baltimore had elevated the medium of television to a modern-day equivalent of a Dickens or Dostoyevsky novel. From its observational precision to its bitter realism, it had achieved a similar synthesis of art and social criticism. And I had not seen anything like it before. When the fifth and final season commenced airing, I did not gobble it down in one bite like I usually did but I took my time to really enjoy every episode. After the finale, I realised the void it would leave in my cultural plate and wondered to myself if I will ever get to experience another TV show of similar ambition. The search took a while and the withdrawal symptoms began to show as I wrestled with anxiety and obsessive thought spirals. Jonesing for a fix of any David Simon-penned crime drama, I read his book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and watched The Corner, the miniseries which spawned The Wire. But any attempts to fill this ravenous void failed.
A few days later, from reading about Dickens on Wikipedia, as I followed links from one article to another, I ended up on the page for a TV show called Breaking Bad. (It's true what they say about the Six degrees of Wikipedia. It was a six-degree chain after all: Charles Dickens → Bleak House → Bleak House, 2005 TV serial → Gillian Anderson → The X-Files → Vince Gilligan → Breaking Bad)
Breaking Bad had premiered two months earlier on AMC but somehow, I seemed to have missed it. So, without further delay, I watched the pilot to see if it could fill my The Wire-sized vacuum. A middle-aged man wearing nothing but a gas mask, tighty-whiteys and a rubber apron frantically drives his RV off the road and crashes into a ditch. Hearing what he presumes to be police sirens in the distance, he takes out a camera and says his name is Walter Hartwell White and records an apology video for his family. As the sirens grow closer, he takes the gun out of the waistband of his underwear and defiantly points it down the empty dirt road — as defiantly as possible in tighty-whiteys.
Though the opening sequence lasts not more than a couple of minutes, you're instantly captivated and intrigued. I know I was. It promised everything that Breaking Bad went on to deliver: a taut crime drama with a meticulously crafted narrative, a ferocious attention to detail and the aesthetic ambitions of cinema. Just like The Wire.
Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad tells the story of Walt White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher suffering from terminal lung cancer. So, he uses his extensive knowledge of chemistry to produce and sell crystallised methamphetamine to pay for his treatments and ensure his family's financial security in the event of his passing. He enters the drug trade by teaming up with his former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Only, entering a life of crime ends in some disastrous consequences for Walt and the people closest to him.
Over the course of five seasons, your sympathy for Walt begins to slip with his descent into moral decay as we watch him transform from an emasculated everyman into a homicidal drug kingpin. The apparent dualism in the character of Walt brings to mind the classic Jekyll and Hyde ambivalence. We are first introduced to the law-abiding citizen who has to work a second job at a car wash to make ends meet. While Tony Soprano can confide in a shrink or pop Prozac and Frank Underwood can divulge his inner secrets to the viewers, Walt has only chemotherapy sessions and death to look forward to. With time, we see him lose grip to his evil alter-ego, Heisenberg, black pork pie hat perched on his bald head and menacing dark sunglasses. His metamorphosis is in stark contrast to Jesse, who turns from high school drug dealer to the show's moral centre. The antihero characters of Breaking Bad inhabit such grey areas of moral ambiguity. This extraordinary character development is one of the primary reasons I found the show as satisfying, if not more, as The Wire.
However, the shows are only similar in the fact that the spectre of drug trade hangs over both of them. The Wire was known for its neorealist-inspired aesthetics, verité storytelling and linear narrative. Breaking Bad's realism is more stylised incorporating cinematic landscapes, time lapses, flashbacks and POV shots based on its characters' emotional and psychological state of mind. The Wire's honest, accurate depiction of the poverty, politics and policing of Baltimore was a result of the experiences of its creator David Simon (an ex-police reporter for the Baltimore Sun) and writer Ed Burns (an ex-homicide detective of the Baltimore Police Department). Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan learnt his craft under the creative mentorship of The X-Files creator Chris Carter — who was "a very visual storyteller" — during his time as a writer on the paranormal series.
When the final season of Breaking Bad premiered in 2013, the number of viewers who tuned in was nearly four times that of the 2008 pilot. The finale made good on two months of surging ratings with a whopping 10.3 million viewers, thanks in part to our most beloved binge-watching enabler, Netflix. The show earned 16 Primetime Emmy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards. The Wire, on the other hand, has 0 Emmys and 0 Golden Globes (Ugh! What do the HFPA know about quality TV programming anyway?) and continues to be criminally under-watched.
Both shows have won unanimous critical acclaim and passionate fans continue to advocate them with evangelical aggression. But in the ever-improving medium of television and its streaming cousins, we're spoilt for choice and have plenty of shows to binge upon. So, goodbye PTSD or binge-watching blues.
However, I'm yet to watch a show as compelling and rewarding as The Wire and Breaking Bad. Why even now, if and when I go there, I half expect to run into Bunk Moreland in Baltimore or Jesse Pinkman in Albuquerque.
But all good TV shows must come to an end and I’m glad to have joined the ride on two of the greatest ever made.