Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Breaking Bad is the worst show in the history of television.* I've just now finally caught up with Breaking Bad, which I just started watching last week.** Amazing how a show about meth has the same effect on its viewers as its subject does on its victims. But as I start to catch up on the years of episode breakdowns and critical analyses, I can't help but be a little annoyed by the repeated claim about the show's "realism." Joe Kugelmass wrote about this vis-a-vis The Wire, and though I can't seem to find the post, I want to give credit where it's due, because I'm no Zakaria. Joe's point, in brief, is that people always claim that The Wire is a realistic portrayal of the tangled mess of conflicting interests that is the great city of Baltimore, except that isn't realistic in the least. Consider one of the infamous "Omar's coming!" scenes: it's a classic Western sequence whose sole post-modern twist is that it's a shoot-out within a shoot-out. I'm not saying it's not clever or well-executed, only that it's highly stylized, i.e. not realistic and not attempting to be so. Breaking Bad is equally unrealistic, except unlike The Wire, whose overarching narrative does actually embrace a realistic ethos, Breaking Bad is a thoroughly naturalist narrative. What do I mean by "naturalist"? Even I'm not entirely sure. But a decent (if stripped) working definition might be that a naturalist work is any in which a person's character is determined by the restrictions of the social environment in which it operates. No matter what its author claims a naturalist narrative isn't a realistic project: it's a thought experiment that amounts to "If I place Person A into Environment B how will he or she react?" It may aim for realism but its logic is beholden only to itself. (Which is why naturalist novels often begin with a dentist winning a lottery ticket but end with a man handcuffed to a corpse in Death Valley.) Breaking Bad clearly fits into this tradition. A high school chemistry teacher learns he has cancer. He can't afford to pay for the treatment. What will he do? He'll make meth. How will inserting a tidy high school teacher into the seedy world of meth production and dealing change this man's character? The show's spent five seasons answering that question, and the answer, as is always the case with naturalist narratives, is astoundingly unpleasant. If you win the lottery, you kill your wife before dying alone in the desert cuffed to a stranger. If you win the cancer lottery, you can't afford treatment and estrange your wife such that she's counting down the days until your cancer can mount a comeback. In short: There is no good here. But there's no realism either. Naturalist narratives are necessarily and aggressively pessimistic. When presented with a choice between a creating a disturbing tableau and presenting the likely consequences of a particular course of actions, naturalist narratives opt for: Without giving away too much game, that's an image of a...

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