May 23, 2009 2 Comments
To my mind the TV serial Breaking Bad, my new favorite show, is the logical successor to The Sopranos, in the way that it exemplifies the national zeitgeist. Breaking Bad is about a normal mild-mannered guy – Mr. White, a high school chemistry teacher – who, in order to pay his lung cancer bills & set his family up after his (he thinks) looming death, embarks on an attempt to use his chemistry knowhow to become the most badass meth dealer in New Mexico. It’s funny and strange, but most of all, it’s scary.
It’s not scary because of what happens. It’s scary because of what the show seems to be saying about our society. (Maybe TV shows just reflect the warped minds of the moral dwarfs who make them, and don’t say anything at all about our society, but it’s always fun to pretend they do.) And it’s scary because of how much I find myself liking it.
As I hint above, I place Breaking Bad in a tradition of gangster soap operas. There have probably been gangster soap operas going back to the gangster movies of the ’30s and before, but the concept really took off with the Godfather saga. Godfather is essentially a soap opera, is it not? Guys like those movies because there’s guy stuff – guns, and going to the mattresses, and all that – but think about it: what are all those (often embarrassing) scenes with Kay doing there? The stuff about the sister and her husband? All those fricking weddings? Was that not soap opera fodder? (And of course let’s not forget the almost nonstop embarrassment of Godfather 3….)
No, Godfather became such a monster success for a reason, and it certainly wasn’t because it was a one-dimensional, shoot ‘em up gangster picture with explosions that only guys liked. It had to have been, at least in part, because the chicks could find something to care about in the movie too. And that’s why it became so big. So big that it disturbed people. After all, here was America, the greatest country on earth, seemingly obsessed with the family life and squabbles of a set of murderous gangsters. Caring about them. Even (in some ways) looking up to them. At the very least, sympathizing with them, and understanding why they made the choices they did. What did this say about us? Did it say something bad, perhaps? I’m sure the Time Magazine articles practically just wrote themselves….
But man, those were the days. That was nothing. In the ’90s we got warmed up with Goodfellas, which had the most charming and fascinating gangsters we had ever seen. This culminated with its semi-ripoff The Sopranos, which was a mashup of Goodfellas with Beverly Hills 90210 and Married With Children: the gangster film reimagined as a weekly family dramedy. Now instead of a gangster character who like Vito Corleone was sympathetic but still coldly remote and fascinating in his alien ways, we got a gangster character who lived in the suburbs, watched John Wayne movies, picked up the morning paper, had jerk-off backtalking kids, loved backyard barbecue, and generally had the same problems we all had. The murderous gangster had finally settled into our neighborhood, and become our buddy. So much so that the makers of The Sopranos had to repeatedly (and increasingly, it seemed, in the show’s final season) remind us that this Tony Soprano we were welcoming into our living room was not in fact a nice cute cuddly teddy bear. America had not only started to sympathize with the criminal choice, America had started to fall in love with criminals.
So why do I view Breaking Bad as the logical successor? Simple. Breaking Bad takes the logic of the Sopranos and gives it one final tweak: he’s not a gangster who is a lot like us. He’s a guy who is a lot like us and decides to become a gangster.
All three exemplars of the gangster-soap genre make an argument to their audience, make a pitch to them, to win over their allegiance.
- In Godfather the pitch was: “These people were born into a different sort of culture, with different rules. They may do bad things, but try to understand why: If you were in their circumstances, you might well make the same choices. Sympathize with them.”
- With Sopranos, the seduction of the show lay in getting people to fall in love with, envy, and admire Tony Soprano in spite of themselves. The implicit argument presented was that he was a lot like us. “Gangsters are a lot like us. Same goals, they just go about them differently. Same problems, they just solve them differently (and in some cases, more effectively). Like them.”
- In Breaking Bad the argument reverses the Sopranos approach: a nice normal guy becomes a gangster. “You could easily do this too, if you needed to.”
Let’s look at this more concisely:
- The Godfather pitch: You can understand, given circumstances, why criminals do criminal things.
- The Sopranos pitch: Criminals are, in many ways, a lot like you normal people.
- The Breaking Bad pitch: You normal people are, in many ways, a lot like criminals.
Given the above progression we’ve seen, it should be clear why the implications of Breaking Bad are frightening. When watching, I find myself rooting for Mr. White, agreeing with Mr. White, and wishing I had the guts to be Mr. White.
That’s not good.