'Breaking Bad' And The Community Power Of Television
Editorial: This past weekend, I finally started watching Breaking Bad.
It was an oversight on my part, of course. The series deserves every piece of critical acclaim that was thrown at it while I wasn't tuned in. And my misstep was made doubly embarrassing by the fact that one of my good friends was actually a member of Breaking Bad's principal cast. Really, I had no excuse. But I finally got around to screening season one last week, and over the days it took me to finish seven episodes, I learned three things:
1. Aaron Paul is the best pure actor I've ever seen. As in, jaw hanging open when you're not yelling at the TV amazing. I've just discovered a new favorite actor. In fact, I'd like to publicly apologize to Aaron Paul for taking this long to figure out that he's this talented.
2. Paying attention in my high school chemistry course has finally come in handy for something other than passing the final exam.
3. Television, for all its foibles and all the times people dismiss it, still has a unique way of creating a community that is incredibly powerful and really quite moving.
That last one is the most important one (apologies to Aaron Paul aside). I soon decided to take to Twitter and publicly declare my viewing habits, so the forty-odd people who had professed their love of Breaking Bad to me through the years would know they could stop trying to win me over. What followed was something I didn't expect: a flood of tweets from friends and even a few total strangers, talking like I'd committed some crime against humanity. The best part was the exchange between two of my best friends, debating as to whether or not I could be forgiven for this massive trangression. (I eventually was.)
People getting upset that you haven't seen their favorite show is nothing new; I still get a little incredulous when someone tells me they've never seen Brotherhood. What made me stop was the sheer passion with which I was engaged; people were reaching out to me with enthusiasm, telling me how much I was going to love the series or a favorite moment or a favorite character. People that I didn't even think would be into a TV show about drug dealing were chiming in. The dialogue wasn't just "Oh, you're an idiot for not watching Breaking Bad," but rather, excitement that I was about to start Walter White's journey, and enjoy for the first time what they'd come to love.
And in short order, I came to share that fascination. I've spent the last few days binge-watching, laughing more than I expected, and talking to my TV more than I ever have before. When I wasn't watching episodes, I was having discussions on social media with friends about the proper way to dispose of a human body, the appropriateness of snack trays at an intervention, and how sad of a vehicle the Pontiac Aztek is. It's common for me to dissect programs as I'm employed to critically analyze TV shows, but it's a rare and special thing when that experience becomes the norm.
Television is unique in that way. Because it unfolds consistently, week after week, we have the opportunity to be exposed to it repeatedly. To make it part of our lives. I'll talk about a great movie or song, but probably only after I've first experienced it, and then maybe again after it's come out on Blu-Ray or I've bought the CD. Even in the current age of movies becoming franchises before they're even released, you're still likely moving on to something else in the interim. With a TV show, much the same way that actors like Bryan Cranston live in one character for years at a time, the audience is part of that world for as long as we choose to be. We can grow with it. My introduction to criminal law was watching syndicated episodes of Law & Order; they sparked a fascination that led me to earn a degree in Administration of Justice. I'm aware of numerous people who became cops or FBI agents because of Cops or The X-Files or Third Watch. Others who went into politics after The West Wing.
And because we invest ourselves so much, we create a different attachment. At the same time that I was starting Breaking Bad, 24: Live Another Day was about to premiere on FOX. I've been a faithful fan of 24 from the pilot episode all the way through the series finale. Having Jack Bauer back was an actual event in my life. I had May 5 marked on my calendar since last year. Once I got home from work, the first thing I did was fire up the DVR. The next day there was a news report about David Chase still being asked to explain that Sopranos finale. These aren't passing fancies, but interests that persist years later, and that's what the best television can do: sneak its way into your brain over a prolonged period and take up residence.
Yet especially with the advent of social media, these aren't self-contained experiences anymore. TV networks have wisely encouraged us to make them community happenings. We're not just talking with co-workers at the water cooler; we're able to converse with people we've never met and maybe never will. What struck me about Breaking Bad was how almost universal the discussion was; everyone wanted to talk about it, and really talk about it, not just say it's a great show (which it is, absolutely). I started out feeling alone, like the one person on the planet who didn't know who Heisenberg is. Very quickly, I was brought into a community of folks I could then reach out to when I excitedly had to say something about the cinematography or the genius of Aaron Paul. And wouldn't you know, I'm now passing that energy on, because I'm raving about the show to other people who don't know what I'm talking about.
That's what makes television fantastic, and frankly, still a little bit underappreciated. It's something we get to enjoy consistently, over whole chunks of our lives, with a couple million other people, and at its best can be as good as - if not better than - the latest box-office blockbuster. The medium, especially as the quality bar continues to be raised, has cemented its own unique place in popular culture. And that's something worth talking about. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got season two of Breaking Bad to watch...