Sunday, 5 October 2008


Contains Spoilers for Breaking Bad

Stevyn Colgan’s blog steered me in the direction of the first episode of Breaking Bad, a new US import currently showing on FX. And it’s utterly fab. But don’t take my word for it – the first episode is available as a free download on iTunes (what a relief that Apple didn’t carry through their threat to shut it down, eh? The greedy, bluffing tossers).

In the same post, Stevyn says this:

Yet again I find that I'm praising an American show when I want to be praising British shows.

Which is when it struck me: there has to be a reason as to why we don’t generally see drama of this quality in the UK, and I’m struggling to figure out why. Perhaps it might be worth looking at Breaking Bad’s narrative for some clues:

* The protagonist of Breaking Bad is Walter H White (an almost unrecognisable Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle), a fifty year old part time chemistry teacher with an unexpectedly pregnant wife and a teenage son with learning difficulties. Walter’s part time teaching job isn’t enough to keep the wolf from the door, so he also works part time in a car wash, where his extravagantly eyebrowed boss harasses him into working extra hours cleaning cars, which isn’t really Walter’s job.

* After collapsing at the car wash, Walter is informed by his doctor that he has inoperable lung cancer, a fact that he keeps from his wife and son.

* Through his brother-in-law (a dumb, bullet headed cop), Walter becomes intrigued by the money that is made by the town’s drug dealers. Accompanying his brother-in-law on a drugs bust, Walter spies one of his ex-students sprinting from the scene. He collars the kid later and effectively blackmails him into becoming his new partner.

By now, great big fluorescent alarm bells should be ringing. Right off the bat, the protagonist of Breaking Bad is fifty years of age. Fifty! Man, that’s old! Not exactly your key BBC3 demographic there. Is that a significant fact (as an aside, I sat down and watched the superb Dad’s Army last night and wondered if someone would have the nerve to pitch it today)?

If relative old age is a demographic turn off, consider what else could make Breaking Bad a UK commission disaster zone: learning difficulties! Lung cancer! Drugs! Guns! Taken as standalone issues, I’m sure we can all name at least a couple of UK dramas that have taken these subjects as their main dramatic focus, but maybe that’s the problem: perhaps we treat subjects such as old age, learning difficulties and cancer too much as issues that need to be discussed ad infinitum rather than simply as factors that help establish milieu and character. And Breaking Bad is all about character – is that the difference?

Breaking Bad doesn’t do anything tricksy – there’s no intrusive voiceover, no smart ass structure, and its exposition is handled beautifully. Its moral universe is grey at best, as Walter wants to use the gains from his drug dealing to provide a financial cushion for his family, which means that there’s no cosy, Inspector Gadget-like ‘message’ tacked on – with a story this strong, you don’t need it.

It’s not as if the UK doesn’t produce quality TV drama, but the balance has been skewed in recent years in favour of the US. And there’s got to be a reason for that – right?

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