Friday, 11 October 2013

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Breaking Bad can't be art: Thoughts on the first truly naturalist television narrative A few weeks after the finale of Lost, Chad Post attempted to defend it by claiming that its nonsense was the stuff of art. “What’s interesting,” he argued, “is how these six seasons functioned as … a great work of art [that] leaves things open to interpretation, poses questions that go unanswered, creates patterns that are maybe meaningful.” I’m not interested in discussing the merits of the Lost finale – whether all of the “survivors” Oceanic 815 were dead the entire time or some of them were only dead most of time doesn’t matter, as they’re both the narrative equivalent of convincing a child you’ve stolen its nose: it only works because kid’s not equipped to know it doesn’t. Defenders of the Lost finale, of course, have no such excuse and are instead forced, like Post, to recapitulate aesthetic theories they half-remember from high school – in this case, the quasi-New Critical theory that elevates the interpreter over the work of art. It’s the critic, after all, not the artist, who benefits from “leav[ing] things open to interpretation.” The New Critic was an archeologist of ambiguity, teasing from every contradiction he encountered a paean to the antebellum South. They valued ambiguity as an aesthetic virtue because poems and novels that possessed it could be made to be about anything, which freed them to make statements like, when it came to great works of art, “all tend[ed] to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way.” And they did so by being ambiguous, which allowed the New Critics to say, without irony, that great works of art celebrated “the culture of the soil” in the South. This, dear reader, is the brand of literary and aesthetic theory you were likely taught in high school, and by its druthers, Breaking Bad‘s not even a work of art, much less a great one.* In fact, by this standard, it’s quite possibly the least artful narrative in the history of American television, and because of this, it’s the first show that deserves the label “naturalist.” The naturalist novels of the early 20th Century were tendentious in the most base sense of the word: any tendency that appears in characters’ personality early in a book will, by its end, have metastasized into impulses so vast and deep you wonder why they even tried to repress them. For example, in the first chapter of McTeague (1899), Frank Norris compares his titular character to a single-minded “draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient,” whose one “dream [was] to have projecting from the corner window [of his "Dental Parlors"] a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive.” There’s your premise: McTeague is dumb and stubborn, especially in the service of his vanity. In the next chapter, when he tries to extract a tooth from the mouth of a patient he’s fallen in love with, it’s no surprise that “as she lay there, unconscious and helpless,...

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