Popular Genres Week 5: Cult TV

1.  Wilcox and Lavery (2002) identify 9 defining characteristics of ‘quality TV’ – can you apply (with justifications) any of the 9 characteristics on this list to another TV series (including those on Netflix, etc.) that you have viewed recently ? Are there any other characteristics that you could add to their list?

When you think of the term “quality TV” what comes to mind? How could you begin to build an idea of what fits the criteria of “quality TV”? Well, according to Wilcox and Lavery (2002), there are nine defining characteristics of quality TV. I will take a look at a few of these and examine them in order to see if Breaking Bad (2008-2013) fits this criteria.  Breaking Bad centers around high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who decides to cook crystal meth after receiving a Cancer diagnoses.

Our first characteristic I will observe is that of the large ensemble cast. This refers to a show having many characters, each having their own plot lines. Breaking Bad fulfills this for sure. IMDb (n.d) has a vast list of all the actors, among those are “Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Mark Margolis and Raymond Cruz.” There are more, though the characters that are portrayed by these actors are arguably the most important in the cast. Each member of the White family has their own story going on, and each of these characters have associates (i.e minor characters that have connections with these main characters). This makes the cast feel fleshed out and real. Walter White knows a Lawyer, Saul, who in turn knows other villainous characters, body guards and more. Jesse Pinkman has two friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, who in turn have other connections to the criminal world. And so this goes until the entire world is populated with other minor characters who are related to the protagonists.

The second characteristic I will cover will be that quality TV has “a memory”. This means that each episode carries on from the last. This is like reality in that something that happens in season 1 or 2 can determine an outcome or have an impact on something that happens in season 5. This contrasts with cartoons, where things can happen and it won’t matter because no one ages and everything is “refreshed” the next week, such as in South Park, Kenny’s death has no impact because he is alive and well again the next week. Breaking Bad definitely has a memory. A basic example of this being that Walter witnesses his partner Jesse Pinkmans girlfriend Jane overdosing on heroin and dying. This isn’t forgotten about. Even though this happens in Season 2, Jesse undergoes emotional pain that he can never recover from fully. On top of this, Walter reveals to Jesse in the final season that he could have stopped Jane from overdosing and saved her life. This is used to hurt Jesse, as the two characters are at odds with each other. The Breaking Bad Wiki (n.d) says “Jane’s death had significant repercussions, and is largely responsible for Jesse’s downward spiral throughout the first half of the season over his role in her death. Walt also expresses guilt over his inaction towards Jane to Jesse…Jane appears in a flashback in the eleventh episode of the third season…Walt would later spitefully tell Jesse that he watched Jane die and that he could have saved her but he didn’t. (“Ozymandias”).” This is a big example, though even seemingly small things have repercussions in this series.

The third criteria I will look at in regards to Breaking Bad being a quality TV show is that of it being controversial in subject matter. This is an easy one: it centers around the main character being a drug dealer. The lead character goes from harmless and mild school teacher to supremely evil drug lord over the course of five seasons, with his family and those around him being destroyed in the process. All this happens gradually while the audience (or maybe just me) questions whether they should cheer for this character. Controversies have arisen over this show and, in particular, over merchandising. A famous case was in 2014 after the Breaking Bad action figures were pulled from Toys R Us circulation. This is understandable as this is primarily a children’s toy shop. You can make the argument that the show never glorifies methamphetamine (as it depicts that all who are involved in this trade see a comeuppance eventually), although selling action figures of Walter White with a little bag of meth in a children’s store might not be the way to go about merchandising. According to Sam Sanders (2014) writing for NPR, “A line of action figures based on the characters from the award-winning AMC show Breaking Bad have been seen on Toys R Us shelves and on ToysRUs.com. One mother, Susan Schrivjer of Fort Myers, Fla., didn’t want her children exposed to the toys, which are based on a high school chemistry teacher turned crystal meth dealer and his druggie sidekick. (The Walter White character at Toys R Us even comes complete with a bag of fake crystal meth.) Schrivjer started a change.org petition. As of Tuesday, the petition had over 7,000 signatures.” Aside from drugs, Breaking Bad also has a focus on murder, infidelity, child poisoning and so on, all of which are controversial topics.

The final characteristic: You could make the argument that these controversial points and their execution would fall into the area of realism, which is another characteristic for quality TV, and you would be right. Now, as someone who has never (and never wants to) been part of the methamphetamine world, I can’t say for certain that it is realistic, although the repercussions and fall of these characters seem to hit a realistic mark in my opinion. Now, with any work of fiction there are over the top elements, such as the decapitated-head-turtle-bomb in season 2. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. But of course this is a story that has been created by a team of writers. The realism comes through the characters and their motives. I can see myself in quite a few of the characters if I think of them enough. Walters pride and unwillingness to accept money from wealthy friends is absolutely understandable even if it is petty. A writer for TVCalling (n.d) writes about Vince Gilligan’s characters “Like any good television, Breaking Bad is about characters more than story. Realism on the show starts with the people it represents.
Continuing to quote Vince Gilligan on the subject:

First and foremost, you want human behavior to be believable. You want people to behave as human beings as we know and understand. Anyone out there, writer or not is an excellent judge of human behavior. You know when to call bullshit on behavior that seems “writerly” and seems made-up just in order to hit a certain plot point.

There’s a lot of plot in the show, but it’s primarily a study about these characters. A lot of the time spent in the writers’ room is talking about who these people are. What makes them tick.” Here, Gilligan is calling out other shows or movies where behaviour is forced in order to merely progress to the next plot point. In Breaking Bad, the characters progress naturally, with events happening as a result of their behaviour.

There are many more reasons why Breaking Bad is a quality TV show, these four being a prime example.

References:

Wilcox, R. & Lavery D. (2002). Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

IMDb. (n.d). Breaking Bad Full Cast & Crew. Retrieved September 2, 2019, from
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903747/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

Breaking Bad Wiki. (n.d). Jane Margolis. Retrieved September 2, 2019, from
https://breakingbad.fandom.com/wiki/Jane_Margolis

Sanders, S. (2014). Updated: After Controversy, Toys R Us Pulls ‘Breaking Bad’ Action Figures. [Web article]. Retrieved from
https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/21/357841739/toys-r-us-under-fire-for-breaking-bad-action-figures

TV Calling. (n.d). The Realism of Breaking Bad. Retrieved September 2, 2019, from
https://www.tv-calling.com/the-realism-of-breaking-bad/

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