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Cable Programming

It's the Little Things that Make Breaking Bad Big

@johnsolit

August 15, 2013

I waited patiently. I desperately avoided Internet theories, show-runner interviews, and reddit AMAs.  When I found out the first five minutes of the first episode were screened at Comic Con 2013, I immediately stopped reading anything that even referenced the city of San Diego. I cloistered myself.

Thanks to months of diligence and in spite of a number of close calls, last Sunday I was treated, spoiler free, to one of the greatest season premieres in cable history: Breaking Bad season 5 (part 2 episode 1).

[SPOILER ALERT]

It was amazing for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it totally delivered. Not only did we get some crazy Hank-versus-Walt confrontation, but this episode epitomized what’s great about Breaking Bad. It’s complex, yet accessible. It’s not just a series of cliff-hangers and lame plot devices employed to keep you watching, but a nuanced, detailed story told through fundamentally terrible and yet somehow deeply relatable characters.

In the first episode, the best example of this is the “Star Trek “scene.  If you’ll recall, Jesse Pinkman’s two thug friends, Badger and Skinny Pete, have an in-depth conversation about a fantasy episode of Star Trek. Badger conceives of an absurd scenario where Captain Kirk, Spock, and Chekov are in a blueberry pie-eating contest. With the help of Scottie, the transporter is being used to let Chekov cheat by beaming pie out of his stomach, allowing him to eat more pie. As a Star Trek fan and as a Breaking Bad fan, this scene is completely ridiculous.

But the granular, superfluous detail featured here is what brings these characters to life. It’s a huge part of why Breaking Bad is so great and such a success. I know this is a big claim, but let me explain:

Dismissing debates as to whether show writers are implying Star Trek is an allegory for Breaking Bad, whether blueberry pie is really supposed to be blue meth, or whether Walt is more like Spock or Kirk (there are plenty of exceedingly complex theories already floating around), notice how that wonderfully indulgent, and non-necessary scene adds to the emotional connection we make with the characters. Moments like this – with no direct affect on the plot, but which deliver memorable, endearing realism to the characters and scenes – are part of what make fictional narrative great.

So then the question is, why aren’t more narratives as good as Breaking Bad? A big part of the answer is the medium. In film, there’s not enough time to dive into strange dialogue asides (though Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of breaking this rule), and on broadcast TV, inherent creative inflexibility makes scenes like this too risky and wasteful. But on cable, things like this are possible. Cable allows complex, extended narrative. And this open platform of creativity and detail is a huge part of why Breaking Bad is such a success.

Detail rewards fans and makes stories feel real. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan said in Wired Magazine recently, “Once I had the ability to write a serialized story, my writers and I got immersed in it. And we intended it to be even more rewarding to an audience paying close attention. So we put in the tiniest little details that repeat or that we hark back to.”

There are a lot of reasons why Breaking Bad will go down as one of the greatest television programs in history. Great writers, great producers, and great actors earn most of the credit. But the nuance and the detail that make Breaking Bad special wouldn’t be possible without the creative liberty delivered by cable.