Why is Breaking Bad not more of a mainstream hit with audiences?
Everyone knows US cable drama is where its at; the cutting edge of global storytelling. This week, Attentional saw Vince Gilligan, showrunner of the hugely successful US cable show BREAKING BAD, speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival. This brilliantly original show has become perhaps the most exciting program on television — yet it remains a cable show and fails to net massive mainstream audiences despite its critical acclaim. The answer to why is simple; because it puts a “Good” person in a place where he has to do “Bad” things.
This is something that’s too disturbing for most audiences.
Let’s step back a little.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. In the 1990’s, Tarantino’s films were controversial because the director forced the audience to experience empathy with “bad” people (specifically, murderers and drug addicts). What he did was so shocking that people all over the world cried out about it, opening a debate on violence in the media.
In actual reality, all the young director had done was ask audiences to feel empathy with people who they knew were “bad”. This was too disturbing and alarming for many people.
Tarantino had unwittingly entered the same tradition of Shakespeare’s sixteen century plays like MACBETH, which also ask the audience to experience the world through the eyes of a “Bad” character.
BREAKING BAD owes a huge debt to the ground broken by Tarantino, whose influence on film and cable TV today cannot be overstated, but even so, television executives are still often very nervous about having “dark” main characters because they know that it alienates mainstream audiences. They are right; it does. The reason why is simple: people want to be entertained, not asked to experience how the “bad guys” feel because its too difficult and disturbing. They’d rather “Bad Guys” just be evil and get punished by the “Good Guys”. Life’s more reassuring that way, and a lot more Entertaining.
As scientist Dario Nardi stated, most people want their world view to be “Stabilized” and not questioned. It makes them deeply upset to be asked to question the established order.
A recent article from a British academic has tried to explain the differences between Good and Evil in popular imagination. We define “good” most broadly as people doing things that benefit others as well as themselves. “Evil” people think only of themselves.
The quandry of modern television is thus made clear; if we are to experience more morally complex characters, as in BREAKING BAD, its necessary for dramatists to give us empathy with them by showing us how they believe that what they’re doing is actually “Good”. Hitler for example, thought that by invading Russia and wiping our European Jewry he was saving Western Civilization, but this would be very difficult to sell to most audiences because they would naturally be repelled at being made to understand how Hitler felt. It is a difficult tight rope for writers to walk and why television executives get nervous.
It is exactly also what Vince Gilligan has done with BREAKING BAD. The main character is a violent drug dealer (above). Walter White is so memorable though because he has very “self-less” goals; he discovers that he has a terminal illness and is going to leave his family with nothing except debts, so he becomes a drug dealer named “Heisenberg” in order to provide for them after he dies. During the course of the show however, the writers confront him with evidence of the pain his action is causing other people (murder, drug addiction, even an air disaster), but he constantly retreats into denial, because in his mind, he still has noble ends (the help to his family). In other words, we are watching a character go from “Good” to “Bad.”
Ironically, by the end of the show, Walter’s family don’t even want his help anymore because they can see what a monster he’s become. In other words, we can understand his “Evil”, and the show is like, Conrad’s tale, a journey into the Heart of Darkness.
This is a journey that is quite simply too dark for some audiences.