As pure premise, Breaking Bad seems like standard cable fare. A chemistry teacher with cancer starts cooking meth. Not so different from “suburban housewife sells marijuana” or “gym teacher becomes prostitute.”
But in practice, it’s gloriously different. In Season Two, the show became the best drama on TV. And in Season Three, Breaking Bad took yet another impossible leap, justifying an even more grandiose claim: best drama ever on television.
Breaking Bad is powered by pure character, pure story. It’s the TV equivalent of a hit of meth, in all its illuminating, invigorating, addicting, destructive glory. Here are three reasons why.
The transformative acting — Enough praise has been heaped upon Bryan Cranston (formerly the dad on Malcolm in the Middle), who can communicate entire chapters of internal, silent monologue with a single horrified stupor. (He won three Emmys in a row for a reason.) But a truly great show doesn’t just have great actors: It creates them. Last year, Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman went from saggy-pantsed cliché, dropping painful “gangster” dialogue, to one of TV’s best characters — a sneering contortion of grief, rage and self-destruction.
The daring structure — “Nothing ever changes” is the mantra of TV. No matter how many times Dexter in Dexter almost gets caught, we know that he’ll stab his way back to the status quo. Not so here.
In Breaking Bad, the structure bends to the story. Instead of immediately sending Walter White back to the meth lab, the first half of Season Three concentrated on the collapse of a marriage — one far more brutal and painful to watch than any gory action scene. An entire episode became a one-act play about trying to swat a fly — captivating in its symbolism, its character illumination and its intensity.
Choices, not circumstances, produce consequences — The good-man-driven-to-terrible-things story has been told too often. Real tragedy isn’t about “I had no choice,” it’s about “I had a choice, but my flawed morality made the wrong one.” Every horrible result in Breaking Bad is a consequence of a small moral failing — pride, pettiness, paranoia — amplified by surroundings.
In other words, the only way to watch Breaking Bad is with knuckles white and mouth agape.
Sundays, 10 pm, AMC
Cyberbully: The Movie
One of the best genres of TV is the unintentional comedy, and few networks are better at providing that genre than ABC Family. In the sure-to-be-quickly-dated Cyberbully, a teenage girl’s social life is, like, totally ruined when someone starts harassing her online. A real problem, to be sure, but not worthy of the slasher flick-style promos that ABC Family has churned out. (Sunday, 8 pm, ABC Family)
The actual awards are usually anticlimactic. (Yes, Mad Men will win Best Series for yet another year.) Far more interesting is the question of who will be nominated. Will Fringe’s masterful John Noble finally make the cut? Will Community get the nominations it deserves? Will Terriers’ cancellation be redeemed by an Outstanding Drama Series nomination? Spoiler: No. (Thursday, July 14, at 8:35 am, Fox)
The comeback attempts for Friends stars continue. This time, Lisa Kudrow is a dysfunctional therapist (which is typical for a TV therapist) who conducts therapy sessions via three-minute webcam chats (which is not). (Tuesdays, 11 pm, Showtime)