Thursday, July 26, 2012

What’s So Good about Feel-Bad TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 26, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston star in Breaking Bad on AMC

Television has a well-earned reputation for producing escapist fare. But the continuing popularity of shows like Grey's Anatomy, America’s Got Talent, and The Bachelorette doesn’t tell the whole story. Many of the best TV series in the past ten years – a decade of worldwide terror, multiple (and seemingly unending) wars, mortgage crises, and economic decline – are also the most challenging, darkest, and let’s just say it, depressing shows in the history of television.  While Hollywood is overrun with costumed heroes, romantic comedies, and vampire hunting U.S. Presidents, television (cable TV in particular) is taking up the social slack, addressing issues like racism, cancer, AIDS, drug addiction, mental illness, poverty, death, and dying. And its confrontation with these issues has met with both popular and critical success.

Rather than pander to a hypothetical population that wants to leave reality behind, shows like Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Dexter have found big audiences by telling difficult, uncomfortable stories, calling into question old assumptions about why and how people watch television. Notably, while there are few subjects as taboo as cancer, cable TV currently offers two shows with a lead character suffering from the disease: The Big C (Showtime’s comedy starring Laura Linney as a woman recently diagnosed with late stage melanoma), and Breaking Bad, which recently began its fifth and final season on AMC.

If you want to understand the current appeal of Feel-Bad TV, Breaking Bad is perhaps the ideal place to start. The show stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, joins forces with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his former student turned drug dealer, and begins to cook crystal meth. The recipe for Breaking Bad’s success lies in its unflinching realism and its refusal to pull any punches: the very same ingredients which often make the show so difficult to watch are also why it is such compelling viewing. 

Laura Linney in The Big C on Showtime
Unlike the weaker The Big C, whose lead suffers from a largely asymptomatic condition, Cranston’s visceral portrayal of lung cancer ran the risk of making those early seasons almost too painful to watch. But Breaking Bad avoided both the sentimentality and voyeurism inherent in the Lifetime network’s ‘illness of the week’ programming by weaving the physical, financial, and emotional costs of Walt’s cancer treatment into a rich, ongoing narrative. Even as the cancer storyline has dropped into the background in recent seasons, the fragility of human lives and human bodies remains firmly in the foreground, most dramatically in last season’s unflinching depiction of Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and his recovery following his shocking injury during the third season.

If Breaking Bad has earned its reputation as one of the most violent shows on television, it’s because its brutality is of the most devastatingly human sort. Rarely has a television series or film done a better job of de-sensationalizing the very violence it portrays. Unlike the inescapable sensationalism of a series like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, whose procedural nature makes both victims and perpetrators passing objects in our line of sight, shows like Breaking Badand HBO’s The Wire – operate on a different level altogether.

Breaking Bad vigilantly followed the effects of Hank’s vicious beating of Jesse in the third season from both sides of that violence. Even before his badge is taken away officially, Hank breaks down. “I'm supposed to be better than that…,” Hank tells his wife, “I'm just not the man I thought I was."  No two-hour feature can make the dark effects of violence and criminality felt as deeply as Breaking Bad does. The gold standard of on-screen violence – Michael Madsen’s macabre dance routine in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – can’t compete when the effects of violence suffered and perpetrated are followed across multiple seasons on the small screen.

What makes Feel-Bad TV so good is that commitment to the long story, and its respect for the audience and for the characters themselves. We don’t watch to have someone to sympathize with or root for, we watch because those characters have become alive, and their choices and their pain and the pain they cause have become real.

Despite the success of shows like Breaking Bad, much of TV remains delightfully escapist – NBC’s brilliant but unabashedly good-natured Parks and Recreation remains one of my favourite current shows, and the giddy consequence-free quality of TNT’s lawyer series Franklin & Bash is terribly good summertime fun – and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  But every so often, television delivers a show which pushes against all of our expectations, and we’re all the better for it.