Breaking Bad: the constant chemistry of change
It’s pretty rare to stumble on a TV show that actually makes it worthwhile to set aside your book for an hour, but I have recently become addicted to AMC’s original series Breaking Bad in which Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who goes into business with a former student cooking crystal meth.
In the first episode, we meet the remarkably unremarkable Mr. White, who works a second job at a car wash in order to support his pregnant wife and severely handicapped teenage son. When White is diagnosed with lung cancer and handed the darkest possible prognosis, his story shifts from sleepy to searing. What I love about this series is how the action – and there’s a whole lot of that – is all about the transformation of this character. It’s all about chemical reaction, about the subtle and explosive changes that occur when one basic element meets another.
The high concept is fantastically well-executed with brass-knuckle writing, inspired acting, and smartass-on production values. As often as we see cancer milked for sappy emotion and cheap sympathy on television and in the movies, this is the first time I’ve seen anyone capture the unpretty truth that cancer can be – and certainly was for me – an electrifying experience capable of galvanizing and focusing the survivor, utterly shifting both priorities and paradigms for whatever amount of time he/she survives.
Breaking Bad is a great lesson for writers, because it so graphically distills the one thing that makes a character true, a journey compelling, and a story impossible to tear away from: Change. The idea is beautifully summed up in the first ep. As Mr. White performs the usual chemistry teacher parlor tricks, struggling to pique the interest of his hypnagogic students, he tells them, “Chemistry is – well, technically, it’s 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 – they combine and change into compounds. And that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle. Solution and dissolution over and over and over. It is growth. Then decay. Then transformation.”
Breaking Bad has been airing on Sunday nights at nine, but production was derailed by the writers strike, and I'm not sure what the future of the show is. (I've done my part, emailing AMC, producers, etc.) Watch this snippet below or click here to view Ep #1 online.