What is this thing you call “Breaking Bad”?
So apparently there was some big TV event yesterday? If my Twitter feed is any indication, there was essentially nothing worth discussing except what was going to happen on the season finale of “Breaking Bad.”
You see, I have never seen an episode of “Breaking Bad.” Not one. I have a vague sense that it involves a chemistry teacher gone rogue and crystal meth, but that about does it. And that it stars Bryan Cranston, so sublimely befuddled on “Malcolm in the Middle” and (even I cannot miss this) much different on this newer show.
Sadly, it’s not just “Breaking Bad.” I have never seen an episode of “The Sopranos.” Or “The Wire.” Or “Game of Thrones.” Or “Mad Men.”
Back when they were on, I caught a teensy bit of “24” and “Lost.” I cashed in my chips on the first one pretty early, because it was clear it required more of a commitment than I was willing to make. And the latter seemed to be a gigantic pile of “WTF?!?” the one time I watched it, a sense cemented by the fact that none of the seasoned viewers I was watching with had any ability to make things clearer.
In fact, the only television drama juggernaut I’ve caught in its entirety is “Downton Abbey.” Contributing factors to that outcome include: 1) my best friend liked it, 2) I love “Gosford Park” and 3) handsome men in tuxedos. But I also, no joke, found myself thinking “Dear God, everyone’s watching these shows. I must find at least one to watch myself!”
I’m not kidding. I really thought that.
Please don’t get me wrong. My lack of viewing has nothing to do with a foolish belief that these shows aren’t actually worth watching. Unlike other programs whose appeals elude me utterly, I have no doubt that “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” are high-quality entertainments and genuine works of art. I do not have disdain for television as a medium, and would go to bat for any number of programs that I do happen to enjoy myself.
I just don’t particularly like television dramas that much. The Better Half enjoys them more than I do, though he tends to prefer admittedly soapier offerings. (“Scandal’ has some pulpy appeal, despite its manifest silliness. Every time I catch any of “Revenge” I find myself hoping that all the major characters would plunge into a massive sinkhole at once.) Any program that I can’t enjoy if I haven’t seen the previous five episodes seems like too much work.
But despite my reluctance to get sucked into watching something I know I’ll want to complete once I get drawn in, I can’t ignore the feeling that I really am missing something by not viewing these shows. Perhaps it would be going too far to equate ignorance of “The Wire”‘s intricacies with never seeing “Hamlet”… but perhaps it wouldn’t be, either. I have the same kind of nagging guilt about missing Tony Soprano’s saga that I do about puttering out midway through “The Guermantes Way,” knowing all too well that I’m missing something truly worthwhile. (Not you, Pynchon. You and I are through.)
The one thing that strikes me about these shows is how they belie a piece of conventional wisdom about our age. For all the commentary I hear about how our popular culture is no longer the monolith it was when the Big Three networks held sway, it is obvious that it hasn’t shattered into a millions disparate shards yet, either. Perhaps the Peacock and the Eye can no longer say “Watch this, America!” with as much authority (and, having seen reruns of “The Facts of Life” not too long ago, I think we should all be glad of that), but we still watch much the same thing as each other. It is, if anything, a happy thing for our culture that it’s the quality of the product that draws viewers rather than a simple lack of alternatives.
We don’t have a literal water cooler to stand around in my office, and I don’t know what people would talk about if we did. But insofar as the social media I peruse make a decent stand-in, it seems everyone’s talking about the same thing in a manner similar to how they probably talked about “LA Law” back in the day. At least that’s how it looks from outside.