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Why “Breaking Bad” is the Greatest Show in the History of Television

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.BB Logo

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.

BB Walt & JesseThere 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, SeinfeldFriends, The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, the first three seasons of LostMad 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.


  1. Oh? Better than the first season of “Homeland” (the ending of the second season struck me as too silly for it to be a serious contender)? Better than the magnificent Beeb miniseries of Waugh’s magnum opus “Brideshead Revisited,” with Lord Olivier as Lord Marchmain, Claire Bloom as his estranged wife, Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons as the Oxford buddies? Better than the miniseries of LeCarre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” with Sir Alec Guiness as George Smiley? Better than “The Wire”? I realize “Quot homines, tot sententiae” but that’s a tough sell for me, and I dare say a lot of people.

  2. Great comment! Now let’s see if I can actually hit most/all of those points. The Season 1 of “Homeland” was great television ( I agree that the Season 2, especially when compared to the first, cannot be in this discussion), but like most shows in their first season, I think it was still trying to find it’s groove; the creative team was focused on Carrie and Brody, with supporting players merely there for the ride. The Season 2 actually had the supporting cast rise up in prominence, with some incredible acting, but the melodrama from the writers proved to be too much for me. Here’s hoping the third season gets a great balance.
    “Brideshead Revisited” and “TTSS” are both amazing adaptations, but they are just that: adaptations. I love the work that the writers put into television shows (I feel they are often overlooked) and there is something special about creating an idea exclusively for television; that sheer originality is something I truly treasure and as great as ‘Brideshead’ and “TTSS” are, they do lack that quality for me.
    “The Wire.” This show is fantastic, and when I first thought of the title for the article, this was the main show I thought of to argue my own title. “The Wire” is obviously great, there’s one key factor that pushed “BB” an inch closer to the top. While “The Wire” has some incredibly important themes about American society, I think that the question of humanity brought up in “BB” is stronger, if only because it asks that question in a different way. The messages of “The Wire” are evident throughout, but I feel “BB” makes a more powerful statement by making you develop questions and opinions and emotions over the course of the series, with the events and actions designed to spur those things gradually building up to a point of fruition. It’s a relatively subtle kind of difference, but I think it creates a much more powerful message.

    And I know it’s a wildly tough sell! As much as I would love everybody to love “BB” as much as me, I know it’s not feasible, there a great number of truly great shows out there. My three goals in writing this were simple: create a little thought/discussion (which I think I did), hopefully introduce some people to a great show, and to sort of say a personal goodbye to a show I love so much. So thanks for reading (and helping me check off one of my three goals)!

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