BREAKING BAD has now come to a glorious end, and it really was a television marvel. The show, about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher cooking crystal meth to secure his family’s future, was thematically layered, beautifully performed, perfectly paced, artfully filmed and ingeniously scripted. American Television drama has been through quite a renaissance over the last decade, and Breaking Bad represents the absolute pinnacle of the form.
I titled this piece “A Very Filmic Television Experience” not because I see TV as necessarily inferior to film (there is now very little separating the two), but simply because of the common stylistic trends of the two mediums. More often than not, film is stylistically extrovert, aesthetically bold and striking, and generally speaking television is more restrained. Putting aside the amount of money those involved in the respective industries have to put up on screen, this could partly be due to who tends to hold the power in TV and film. Film is traditionally a director’s game, TV is a writer’s. A filmmaker has far less screen-time to make their mark in a feature film – every shot really does count, and directors and their cinematographers want you to notice how clever and artistic they’re being. With TV you want to be as stylistically unobtrusive as possible – nothing should detract from the story that you are spending so much time to tell, the characters that you are slowly but surely developing. Series creator Vince Gilligan smartly opted for a visually high-concept show.
One of the most striking things for me about Breaking Bad was how close to cinematic fare it looked. It was paced like television, and benefitted from the slow-burning drama potential of the small screen, but it always looked big. Every shot was carefully composed and packed full of symbolism. Tilted camera angles and POV shots were used extensively to emphasise characters’ spirals into oblivion. There were several really quite beautiful extended montages throughout the series that would have pleased Eisenstein. It takes stylistic, character and plot cues from big-screen genres and trends – a heist from a crime thriller, a desert shootout from a western, morally ambiguous, lying characters from film noir.
It’s often been noted (with much amusement) by avid fans of the show how much Marie (Betsy Brandt) loves the colour purple, from her clothes, to her household furniture to her kitchen kettle, but in fact every character on the show has a signature colour that in some way symbolises their personality. Walt (Bryan Cranston) started off wearing beige and sickly green because he was a dull and unfulfilled middle-aged man, but as his storyline progressed and he truly “broke bad” his clothes got darker, stronger. Skyler (Anna Gunn) began the show wearing gentle, motherly blues, but started wearing Walt’s shades of green as she became more heavily involved in the meth business. The amount of thought put into small details like this elevates Breaking Bad above pretty much every other TV show, and a lot of films, too.
TV and film, previously so disparate, now swap talent on a regular basis. Bryan Cranston has argued his film career wouldn’t be in such an advanced stage without Breaking Bad, without Walter White, and many big-name film directors now seem keen to try their hand at working in TV. Rian Johnson, one of the most inventive independent filmmakers of the last decade directed three of the series’ most spectacular and memorable episodes – the trippy character study FLY (2010), the complex FIFTY-ONE (2012) and the powerful OZYMANDIAS (2013).
With shows of the quality of Breaking Bad being made, the film industry really is fighting a losing battle. No wonder audiences are staying at home, streaming high-concept TV drama on computers rather than trekking to their local multiplex. No wonder Steven Soderbergh now prefers to work in TV if film executives aren’t prepared to take risks. Cinema isn’t dead and buried yet, but filmmakers need to push for original narrative ideas and technical innovations to effectively compete with the small screen. Now television looks about as good as film, the need is ever greater for visionaries to make their art form stand out from the crowd.
I’ve never really been an avid watcher of the small screen – I can take or leave 9/10 shows on at any given time, but I’ll rush to see most big cinema releases without fail. Breaking Bad has made me reassess my position, and see television as an art form, just like its flashy big screen brother. SSP