Breaking Bad
Vince Gilligan, 2008–

A while back Mike D'Angelo posted a blog entry entitled "Seeking new time suck" that included a poll asking which of seven TV shows he should start watching next. The runaway winner was something I'd never heard of called Breaking Bad. When MD'A reported back that he was already enthralled after the first two minutes, I figured I might as well check it out — as noted, I like being able to start in on something knowing absolutely nothing about it other than that people whose tastes at least somewhat overlap with mine think it's good.

It turns out that this is one of those shows that cast members of some despised segment of society — mobsters, Mormon polygamists, serial killers, advertising executives — as the protagonists; in this case our heroes operate a meth lab, placing them pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of public esteem. (Even crack dealers earn a higher Q rating thanks to the demographics.) It's set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a novel location for a TV show which would have earned it major points from me on account of Pattern 24 even if New Mexico were not one of my favorite places to visit
and high on my list of potential destinations should I ever decide to relocate. One caveat: green chile recipes have thus far played a disappointingly small role in the storyline.

It's easy to see why MD'A was so taken with the pilot. It starts with a bravura "what the hell is going on here" set piece that looks like it might be postapocalyptic, then jumps back and introduces the main character, a nerdy high school chemistry teacher who looks amazingly similar to my own high school physics teacher. As the story unfolds, we learn that, as if trying to teach unappreciative teenagers about covalent bonds weren't bad enough, he also has to work at a car wash to make ends meet; one particularly low point comes when one of his students snaps a cell phone picture of him wiping down some tires. An even lower one comes when he collapses at work and is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Unable to bear the prospect of leaving his pregnant wife and handicapped son nothing to live on but his Social Security, he snaps. Having learned from his DEA agent brother-in-law that meth dealers make some serious money, he Turns to a Life of Crime™, using his chemistry expertise and the badassity that comes from having nothing left to lose to set himself up as a major player in the methamphetamine trade.

The problem is that while the pilot is quite good as a standalone piece, ultimately it exists to set up the premise for a series: dying chem nerd becomes a most-wanted underworld figure in order to provide his family with an inheritance. How many story arcs can that premise sustain? The protagonist can't actually die, because the series would end, but neither can he actually get better, because that would obviate his motivation. Initially the clock is ticking because he's refused chemotherapy. What? The series was renewed? Okay, guess he'd better start chemo! He does. But he has to keep thinking he's weeks away from the grave, even as the months and years slip by. He sees a big white spot on a scan — oh no, gonna die! Gotta cook more meth! Picked up for another season? Hey, that white spot was a harmless inflammation! The same dynamic operates where the money is concerned. Once he achieves his goal the series is basically over, so every time he lands a big score he has to lose it somehow: chemo bills, payoffs to lawyers. Not that this is unique to Breaking Bad — most television series seem to be exercises in drawing out the story, cycling back around to the status quo as many times as possible. "Time suck" therefore seems rather apt.

(continued in the article on Dollhouse)

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