Top 10 TV Shows: #2 Breaking Bad

Videos by OutKick

You see, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications. (Walter White, S1E1)

It’s fitting that Walter White spoke the above words mere moments into the pilot episode. It’s simultaneously fitting that I get to write about probably the best television show of all-time just two days after the show, its staff, and its stars added one final year’s worth of hardware to their figurative mantles at the 2014 Emmy Awards. Before I get the privilege of writing about Vince Gilligan’s beautiful, terrifying, perfect show, I have to explain why I’m not writing about it next week.

For a few years now, I’ve wrestled with the question I’m now forced to answer publicly via this list for Outkick. I have a favorite show that simply, rationally or not, cannot be topped. It’s a personal choice, a subjective choice, just like your own favorites. It’s the same idea as having a favorite color or food, but in television a bushel of critics have written volumes on all the shows and as a result have helped define a narrative of what the best show should be for a certain kind of audience. Through the process of my list, as I sit here today putting together the penultimate installment, I know I might have some shows out of order. A large part of me believes The West Wing is a top five show. I did rewatches and binge watches of most of the shows and depending on time and deadline, I had to make selections. It’s easier to think of particularly the first six shows on the basis of making the list, rather than their position. Put TWW at 5 and push the others down a slot.

Today though, today’s tough, because I’m writing about genius the likes of which we haven’t seen before and may never see again. I’m writing about one of the most decorated and revered programs of all-time. This list is limited by what I’ve seen, which is vast, but doesn’t include LA Law or Hill Street Blues, both of which won multiple Best Drama Emmy awards. Both are in my plans to watch over the next few years. I’m 35 years old and this is my subjective opinion. You have yours. No one’s right and no one’s wrong. My number one will please a few and enrage the rest, but that’s next week.


Refer once again to the quote that opened this piece, for it, intentionally or not, is the best summation of AMC’s second foray into original scripted drama. Following Mad Men’s critical success and despite the ratings issues that plagued that show, AMC green lighted a tale about a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who begins producing methamphetamine to acquire money both for treatment and to provide for his family after the disease takes his life. At least, that’s what the show was presented as originally, both to the network and to the audience.

It’s a noble idea wrapped around a strangling cloak of treachery, danger, and selfishness. We can all speculate as to Walt’s motives for his choice, but Gilligan gives us a few options early and several others late in the show’s fifth and final season. Walter White is a smart man but he isn’t a popular man. He’s treated terribly at his second job, working at the local Albuquerque car wash, stepped on by his boss and berated in humiliating fashion. At home, his wife seems to love him but also appears to do it more out of sympathy than adoration. His brother is a hot shot, jock-talking DEA agent who tells a lot of jokes, much to the thrill of Walt’s own son. When he goes to work, Breaking Bad’s lead character is a high school teacher whose class sees him in the same way the rebellious adolescent usually sees a stodgy, quiet adult lacking in confidence.

Vince Gilligan has often said Breaking Bad was conceived as a variation on a modern-day western story. Westerns were some of his biggest influences. While it might be difficult to see the similarities originally, a rewatch showcases them clearly and consistently. One on one verbal showdowns, the many standoffs, the train robbery, and on and on go the correlations between this story about a New Mexico man’s descent from the frail human Walter White into the monster Heisenberg and the black and white westerns of yesteryear.  

Gilligan wrote a small film in 1993, Wilder Napalm, an underground cult classic, and would do a few more, Home Fries and Hancock, during his career. Nothing wrong with the last two, but to think it was the guy that penned those films that also created and ran Breaking Bad does raise the eyebrows. Those are blips on the radar though for Gilligan compared to his first job in TV, writing and producing for Chris Carter on The X-Files. Vince submitted a script to FOX as he was a major fan of the show and would end up writing 30 episodes, beginning in Season 2, and later would co-create the spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, which was cancelled after thirteen episodes. Ironically, had it not been for Home Fries, which won an award while he was at NYU, he never would have met one of the judges, who would become a mentor and later introduce him to Carter.

Without Carter we wouldn’t have Breaking Bad, because a writer is always shaped by his experiences and passions. The X-Files, if my list extended to 15, would have been written about in its own right several weeks ago. Gilligan learned how to write, how to think, and later how to produce and oversee television as his role with that program grew.  

In TV, and this has been true for decades, the stories change but the structure stays the same. HBO helped to alter things as its originals increasingly began to push the envelope, then came FX as The Shield pushed network TV arguably farther than even The Sopranos, Deadwood, or The Wire. While this metamorphosis took place, the networks relied on police and investigative procedurals, self-contained episodic dramas, and shows set at law firms and hospitals. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because in most respects, it still hasn’t changed. All of this programming was and is ripe for syndication and by proxy generates immense revenue for all involved that extends far beyond a program’s life cycle. It’s an attractive byproduct, kind of like the initial meth high (or so I’m told.)

If a show like Breaking Bad didn’t work, its stars would move on, as would the team that produced and wrote it. The network though would take a few haymakers, particularly in the financial arena. We’ve seen Walter White’s entire journey now and it’s easy to say an executive would have to be insane not to want this show on their lineup after the truckload of acclaim, but if you heard the pitch in 2007, would you bite? Luckily, AMC had taken a risk with Matthew Weiner and a show about the 1960’s advertising industry and were willing to take an even bigger leap with Gilligan’s story, which he has famously said he pitched as Mr. Chips becoming Scarface.

I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger! A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks! (Walter White, S4E6)

All I can do…is wait for the cancer to come back. (Skyler White, S5E4)

The idea was to take a protagonist and through the course of the story, change that character into the antagonist. Again, the quote that opened this piece, taken from the first moments of the pilot episode, fits the finest crime drama of our lifetime without blemish. Walt was a teacher who wanted to help his family, knowing his time on Earth was likely short thanks to cancer. He was a genius chemist who produced the best meth imaginable, 99% pure and blue in color, and became incredibly successful. He made a ton of money. He lost his family as the idea of stacks of cash was replaced by the concepts and intoxications of power and control. Ultimately, that addiction became the obsession to run an empire, to matter in a grand sense, and to be an unforgettable historical figure. He lost his soul. Cancer didn’t take him quite as quickly as we all thought, including Walt and his family, but the true disease of Walter White was Walter White.

Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, and James Gandolfini were blessed with the three best dramatic characters since the invention of the television itself. Cranston, though, with extreme and due respect to the other two, got the best of all of them. Walter White is the best we’ve ever seen, and, in the exact same fashion as Jon and James, the relationship between actor and character was reciprocal. Monday night, Bryan Cranston walked away with his fourth and final Emmy for his Breaking Bad portrayal. Gandolfini won a bundle for his role as Tony Soprano. Jon Hamm hasn’t won for Don Draper but it isn’t his fault. It’s actually largely Cranston’s fault, because the two competed in the same category year in and year out and Cranston won each of the head-to-head fights.

He’s a great father, a great teacher. He knows like everything there is to know about chemistry. He’s patient with you, he’s always there for you. He’s just decent. And he always does the right thing and that’s how he teaches me to be. (Walter Jr, S2E13)

Walter White was brilliant from the pilot. Bryan Cranston was brilliant from the pilot. They are one in the same. Cranston was a gem on Malcolm in the Middle and then flipped to play what may well go down as the most famous lead character in dramatic television history. There’s no Walter White without Bryan Cranston. He made that character just as Vince Gilligan helped reestablish the acting career of his main star. But Gilligan wasn’t satisfied with one iconic character…he created two.

Aaron Paul was similar to a lot of other young actors in Hollywood. He auditioned for plenty, worked in several, but hadn’t had the breakout role. His first true entrance to TV, outside of small bit parts, was on HBO’s Big Love, but even there, the world really hadn’t met Aaron Paul. That would change when Jesse Pinkman, who we first see as Captain Cook, showed up on screen as a former student of Walt’s who was both addicted to and the largest local producer of meth in Albuquerque. Jesse would become Walt’s pupil again while teaching him the business side of the drug trade. He also got much smarter once the decision was made to keep him on the show. Originally his character wasn’t supposed to make it out of the first season. Can you even imagine that now?

Look…look, you two guys are just… guys, okay? Mr. White…he’s the devil. You know, he is…he is smarter than you. He is luckier than you.

Whatever… whatever you think is supposed to happen… I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen, okay? (Jesse Pinkman, S5E12)

As Gilligan shifted Walt from hero to super villain, he allowed Jesse Pinkman to move in the opposite direction. This punk kid, this meth dealing, drug taking, foul-mouthed idiot kid grew into his own soul as Walt shot his own between the eyes. Jesse fell in love, watched that love die, loved children, saw the mistakes he made, and tried to find the safest way to get out. As with most instances of the sort, attempting to get out usually ended up in being drawn further into the darkness. Brilliantly, Jesse’s desperate emotional climb felt identically paced to match the Breaking Bad audiences’ collective rhythms and beats. Gilligan manipulated us all through Jesse. We didn’t know it at first, but we began to realize it in the latter stages of Season 3. I knew Jesse Pinkman. I was Jesse Pinkman.

The rest of the main cast, from Deadwood alum Anna Gunn to Ivy Leaguer Dean Norris to the hilarious and talented Betsy Brandt to RJ Mitte, who played Walt’s cerebral palsy stricken son, the casting of Breaking Bad felt increasingly inspired as the series progressed. Norris in particular, who sadly never won an Emmy for the character of Hank Schrader, also went from a mildly antagonistic role to playing a heroic and noble man in the final season. Gilligan and his staff brought in Giancarlo Esposito to play a chicken restaurant owner, Gustavo Fring, who would become one of the single scariest characters imaginable. He also brought in the gruff but awesome Jonathan Banks to play Mike Ehrmantrout, a hitman and fixer for Fring’s criminal enterprise who was caught up in the worst and was too old to do anything else. He became the father figure for Jesse, replacing Walt, and led him in the right direction. It would eventually kill him.

Just because you shot Jesse James doesn’t make you Jesse James.

(Mike Ehrmantrout, S5E3)

In direct opposition to Fring was Saul Goodman, played by sketch and comedy veteran Bob Odenkirk. What an odd choice? No. What an intriguing choice? Yes. Odenkirk has said he still can’t believe he ended up as the dirtbag lawyer to Walter White, but as Gilligan always wanted his show to be partial comedy, Odenkirk fit the bill, as did Bill Burr and Lavell Crawford. Breaking Bad’s main arc is dark and awful in tone. It almost needed the comic relief. As usual, Vince recognized the necessity of some semblance of balance and made sure to include it and feature it correctly.

One final point is the music. Breaking Bad’s musical story is the one I like to tell my own circle of friends. Vince Gilligan used a ton of music in the pilot and some people he trusted in the industry viewed it and said they loved it but asked if he had any confidence in his writing. He didn’t fully understand. These people told him he didn’t need the music underneath his words. They said it’s used as a coping mechanism on many shows that need the bells and whistles to overcome their flaws. While music is very important to Breaking Bad, it’s used for a purpose. Very few times does the show put music under its conversational sequences. In fact, it almost never happens. Many moments, there’s nothing but the voices on screen or the pregnant pauses that helped define the show. It was the best choice Gilligan made other than his casting.

He listened and he learned and it never stopped. He learned from his writing team and from his actors. He learned from guys like David Simon who used music both on Treme and The Wire in natural situations. Breaking Bad is often a quiet show on the surface because the product itself shouts from the highest mountaintops.

Breaking Bad won two Emmys for Best Drama, including this past Monday night’s top honor, and was nominated five times. Bryan Cranston won four for Walter White. Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn both won three for their roles as Jesse Pinkman and Skyler White. Vince Gilligan won an Emmy and four consecutive Writer’s Guild Awards. As a whole, the show and its individual parts won 16 Emmys out of 58 nominations. It’s been nominated for 260 industry awards, winning 108 through its five seasons.

Breaking Bad wasn’t about the f-word, it wasn’t about sex, it wasn’t about people screaming at each other all the time. It was about the story. More specifically, it was about its people and their subsequent transformations as the result of personal decay or growth. It was original in a world and society of the unoriginal. The idea was different. The cast was different. The man behind it all was very different and thank God for that. Breaking Bad was unique. It never had to change but it did. It felt like a gift we got to unwrap every Sunday night for six years. Stunningly, it continued to get better and better. Ozymandias, which some believe should have been the series finale, is one of the three best hours of drama I’ve ever seen. The finale, Felina, was the perfect close to Vince’s post-modern western. Walter White finally realized and admitted who he was and maybe who he’d always been. We got the final shootout, the definitive resolution, and the gunman’s last stand. Flawless.

As a direct result of Gilligan’s vision and the work of everyone associated with the show, our eyes, our minds, and our hearts were transformed, but not into a middle-aged meth dealer in a porkpie hat. We, for the first time, collectively understood how special television could truly be. Better than any movie, more consistently great than the best book series, Breaking Bad isn’t overrated. It’s not overhyped.

It’s the one who knocks.

All five seasons of Breaking Bad are available on NETFLIX in addition to DVD and Blu-Ray releases. AMC is currently running a Sunday night marathon each week of the series. The spinoff, Better Call Saul, a prequel story of Saul Goodman leading to the day he first meets Walter White, premieres next fall on AMC.

Follow and subsequently troll me now and forever @GuyNamedJason

10. Chuck

9. Battlestar Gallactica

8. The West Wing

7. The Shield

6. Friday Night Lights

5. The Sopranos

4. The Wire

3. Mad Men

Written by Jason Martin