The wonderful thing about Reddit, aside from introducing me to the wild ‘n wacky mind of the computer hacker (I mean, programmer), is that the threads often closely follow my own trains of thought, no matter how obscure or obvious. And one of those trains was a post the other day comparing Breaking Bad to The Wire, the police procedural set in Baltimore that ran from 2002 until 2007.
If you haven’t seen it, I would urge you to watch at least one season of The Wire. It is widely considered to be the best TV show ever, but that is assuming your tastes run towards hyper-realistic dramas, not campy fantasies riddled with vampires and the fairies who love them. I see both as the equivalent of the opposite ends of a Kinsey-type scale of TV drama preferences. When I visualize that scale, I see a petulant, girly Filipino twink wearing a Madonna t-shirt grabbing the remote and aiming it at an episode of The Wire, saying, “Enough of this shit. So depressing. I wanna watch True Blood. Alexander Skarsgaard, he’s so hot. SOOKIE!!! I love you!”
Allow me to be a bit pedantic and say that I agree that The Wire is probably the best show ever aired that was created in the United States, or it was for the first three seasons. There are a number of British shows that could be thrown into this debate, but I don’t want to stray too far from the focus of this piece, which is Breaking Bad.
It was quickly pointed out in that discussion thread on Reddit that The Wire was more entertainment than a gritty, “realistic” look at crime in a decaying American metropolis desperately struggling for relevancy, stuck as it was in a sort of limbo between New York and Washington, with only its port to vie for survival. As I wrote in my post to the thread, in that respect Breaking Bad is more like The Shield, another police procedural set in L.A., which also began its first season in 2002. In a viewing marathon that ran parallel to the writing of my first novel, I watched all seasons of The Shield and The Wire back to back, in batches of four or five episodes every night. I couldn’t tell which I preferred, still can’t. On the one hand, I was engaged and engrossed more by The Wire because I cared for and identified with the story and the characters on a deeper level. On the other, at not point did I feel compelled to pause the action because I couldn’t take any more, to the point I was hopping up and down going “Oh, shit!” like I was with The Shield. Whereas The Wire was an intellectually stimulating tour of an exotic culture, The Shield was a wild roller coaster ride, and in that respect it was more purely entertaining.
If I were to place the shows on that same Kinsey-type scale, with True Blood representing the completely homosexual side, and The Wire the entirely straight, I would place both The Shield and Breaking Bad somewhere in the middle. In other words, they’re some degrees of bisexual.
That analogy would probably irk many Breaking Bad viewers, especially those fans who comment on the fiercely heterosexual, if often gay-friendly Reddit. “All the guys like Breaking Bad,” a female guest said at a dinner party the other night. And she’s right: it is a guy’s show, just like Sons of Anarchy. My admittedly far-fetched, strained analogy is meant as a compliment, not least of all because it comes from someone who inwardly knows he’s bisexual but outwardly identifies as purely gay (it’s just so much more convenient in too many aspects).
All far-fetched, strained analogies aside, I do think I am making a valid point to some degree on the shared narrative techniques of The Shield and Breaking Bad, and even Sons of Anarchy: they put the anti-heroes— characters with whom, morally speaking, we really shouldn’t be identifying but do—in tight situations from which there is no conceivable escape, and then fish them out, only to tie them up again and put them in even more precarious situations. It’s a sort of Houdini Effect, mesmerizing and addictive because of the adrenaline it produces in the viewer. It is realistic enough to be credible, but the reality is that those are impossible situations, whereas The Wire’s always fall within the realm of probability.
True, Breaking Bad does have a great deal of basis in reality, a claim bolstered by former meth dealers like the pseudonymous Mark Sullivan, who wrote an article a year ago in The Daily Beast that began with this statement:
The first time I saw AMC’s Breaking Bad was about two years ago. I felt like I was watching a reel of my own life—or at least my past—and I finished the entire season in one sitting.
It’s true, the similarities between Sullivan’s life and Jesse’s from Breaking Bad (Sullivan’s equivalent of Walt the cook was a former Hell’s Angel disfigured from an explosion in a mobile lab) are almost too uncanny, but if you go on with the article, Sullivan’s life burns out within a year and a half; it’s just too difficult to sustain. That the leads would likely die from nervous exhaustion is certainly no reason not to continue with a TV series, but you have to say to yourself that there is no way a couple of guys could tolerate that relentless pressure for so long. It’s the same with The Shield: every time I pass through the areas of L.A. those bad cops operated in, which is often, I imagine the chase scenes and shoot outs that would need to take place almost on an hourly basis if it were to have some semblance to the show, but which in reality are far less frequent.
But in what ways is Breaking Bad camp enough to be placed in the middle of the scale, anywhere near the likes of True Blood? Aside from the occasional tortured narrative devices, many of the secondary characters are a little over the top: Giancarlo Esposito’s unbelievably static sociopath Gus the Don; Bob Odenkirk’s vaudevillian Saul the Shyster Lawyer; even Bryan Cranston’s Walt the Hapless Cook, at least in the first couple of seasons until he dialed the nearly unwatchable histrionics back and let the drama handle the intensity, rather than spraying it all over the screen with his performance.
I don’t think my Kinsey scale of narrative preferences and styles is all that off. As a writer and storyteller, I so admire the guys who write these crime dramas and police procedurals because I feel I would be terrible at it. I could fake it, just as I could fake being straight, but it wouldn’t be very good or convincing. As director Marcus Nispel once said to me about the sort of indie psychodramas/twisted comedies I write, “I like watching them, but I couldn’t see myself making one.” That’s just one reason he sticks to remakes of horror and fantasy films, which are on a whole other sliding scale of their own.