I am aware that the title is a little bit strong. I realize that you may have other opinions of this or other shows you consider to be great. I know that statistically speaking, only about 2.4% of Americans above the age of 15 watch Breaking Bad regularly, which all things considered isn’t a huge number. But BB is still the greatest television of this or any generation.
A quick summary for those who may not be familiar: Walter White, a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico, learns that he has lung cancer and decides to put his chemistry knowledge to work cooking crystal meth. His exploits soon begin to involve a former student, his pregnant wife, and a brother-in-law in the DEA. I’d say more, but I am trying to keep this article as spoiler-free as humanly possible.
The first link that holds many of the great TV shows together is common: a good lead character. Starting with The Sopranos and the antihero (in simplest terms, a character who doesn’t act heroically, but still fills a lead role traditionally filled by a hero) of Tony Soprano, to The Wire’s Omar Little who broke all preconceptions of a street criminal, all great dramas have at least one strong and wildly interesting character. In the case of Breaking Bad, we have Walter White, portrayed by Bryan Cranston. White is the antihero to end all antiheroes, a man whose motives and actions you agree with and despise simultaneously. Cranston and others on the show have stated that a character like White would not be possible if not for James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, the first true antihero on television.
While that may be true, there is one key difference that separates the two: while Soprano was the same over the course of the series (a man who wouldn’t change), White has changed in more ways than I can count. I am going to try and avoid as many spoilers as humanly possible, but White’s true character changes often start with events in the first two seasons of the show, but there is no display of those changes for years. This complete change is persona over the course of the series is an incredible thing to watch, and something that still makes my head explode. A recent episode title is a single word that beautifully describes the type of character Walt is and the change he’s undergone: “Ozymandias”.
Cranston’s brilliant portrayal of a wildly deep character, however, does not take away from the other actors on the show, including Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, a methhead turned junior chemistry genius, Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, a fake Jewish lawyer and the show’s comedic relief (who is receiving his own prequel spinoff series), and Anna Gunn as Skylar White, Walt’s wife, initially a character fans loved to hate for just being kind of annoying but who quickly became a key part of Walt’s transformation in many ways. These and dozens of other great characters, each portrayed with such unrivaled skill and talent that it creates one of the strongest ensembles in the history of television. Even though I know the actors well, follow them on Twitter and whatnot, when I watch the show they are not actors playing well-written characters; they are people in Albuquerque, and I just have the privilege of watching their lives for an hour. That’s the level of talent on this show.
Vince Gilligan (the show’s creator) and the writing team are absolutely fearless. Without giving too much away, they are not afraid to have a cliffhanger happen 30 minutes into an episode’s 45-minute running time before switching to a new storyline, or have a main character casually be killed off within about 15 minutes. This is hard to describe without specific spoilers, but their minds are brilliant.
There is one final piece of Breaking Bad that distinguishes it from just about every other show in the history of television: the overall quality. Any person will say that most TV shows, if they last more than maybe three seasons, go down in quality. It’s just a cycle of television life: actors get into a rut, writers run out of ideas. It happens. But Breaking Bad has literally undergone the opposite.
The first season was pretty good: the story was good, characters were good, but Cranston was the real standout. But then seasons two and three happened, and the story got more interesting, the other actors really began to come into their own. By season four, the standout was no longer Cranston, but the creator and showrunner Gilligan, who had successfully turned Breaking Bad into the highest quality show on TV. But with the fifth and final season, just when it couldn’t get better, the acting, writing, directing, cinematography, even the music got bumped up to another level of pure brilliance.
For a good frame of reference, the website Metacritic, which compiles reviews of TV shows, movies, etc., has the following ratings out of 100 for Breaking Bad: Season 1, 74; Season 2, 85; Season 3, 89; Season 4, 96; Season 5, 99.
I could literally go on about the brilliance of Breaking Bad for ages (if you don’t believe me, ask my roommates). The fact of the matter is, there is no show that can compare to Breaking Bad. There is no show that comes even close to having characters and a story as well-crafted as Breaking Bad. We have had some shows that are truly “great”: from the early 90’s to now, we’ve had The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Friends, The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, the first three seasons of Lost, Mad Men, to name a few. As brilliant as those shows are, they just build up to Breaking Bad. And if that is the direction that America’s standout shows are going, I cannot wait to see what the next big phenomenon will be.