Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan says his show is about “a protagonist who’s dying of cancer and who decides to spend his final months cooking crystal meth.” But the most implausible thing about it may be that it’s entertaining. When the show began three years ago on AMC, it sometimes seemed like it was cobbled together out of the clichés of “edgy” cable shows: Walter White (Bryan Cranston of Malcolm in the Middle) is a monstrous anti-hero like the star of Dexter, and the show exposes the underbelly of suburban life like Weeds. But since then, the show has increased its viewership every year; it found its own identity not with depressing drama, but weird, surreal comedic moments, like showing a Homeland Security agent whose car decoration reads “fighting terrorism since 1492.” Gilligan, the former X-Files writer who created Breaking Bad, says that he realized early on that the concept had to be leavened with humour or it would be “the kind of show you’d want to slit your wrists watching.”
So even though Breaking Bad has characters who are killed or brutalized almost every week, it also offers big laughs to go with the blood. A scene where Walt creates meth is done as a wacky montage set to bubbly jazz music; in another episode, he gets stuck in the desert with his dim-witted sidekick Jesse (Aaron Paul), who starts begging him to build a robot to get them out of danger.
Most dramas try to have comic moments, but usually from designated comic relief characters. Breaking Bad has a few of those, especially crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (veteran sketch comic Bob Odenkirk), who is called upon to make jokes at inappropriate times. But the biggest laughs often come from moments that are also serious. When Walt is thrown out by his wife, he reacts by throwing a pizza onto the roof and wakes up the next morning face-down in a pile of popcorn, looking hilarious even as his circumstances are depressing. “They put themselves into bizarre situations,” Gilligan says of his characters, “and inadvertently become funny.”
All this comedy could have turned Breaking Bad into a joke. But strangely enough, the funnier it gets, the more seriously fans and critics take its exploration of good and evil. That may be because the things that make the characters amusing are also the things that make them frightening. Cranston’s character is funny because he lives in what Gilligan calls “an amazing degree of self-denial,” refusing to believe that he’s a villain: “He doesn’t see himself as a bad guy,” Gilligan explains, “he sees himself as doing good for his family.” That cluelessness is amusing, but it’s also what causes him to let a woman choke to death on her own vomit, or play down the impact of a plane crash that he caused. Because Walt bounces between hilarious and horrifying, the show has a feel that’s very different from shows like Dexter, which play their anti-heroes more straight. “Hopefully that level of rationalization and denial feels real and authentic,” Gilligan says, but “having said that, it’s ludicrous!”
The comedy gives Breaking Bad another edge over similar shows: it’s willing to make fun of its own premise. Gilligan’s writers often give what he calls “a little tip of the hat to the absurdity of this situation,” and some scenes teeter on the edge of self-parody. Two Mexican gangsters seeking revenge on Cranston are like a spoof of emotionless hit men in films like No Country For Old Men. And the writers call attention to how silly it is for Walt to be legendary in the underworld, with jokes about his obliviousness to the fact that people are trying to kill him. “We show the audience that while we’re taking it seriously, we’re not taking it too seriously,” Gilligan says. We can’t question the plot if they question it first.
And because the show is willing to play some aspects for comedy, the serious parts may actually be more powerful by contrast. In one scene, DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris) and his wife (Betsy Brandt) sob on each other’s shoulders in an elevator. But the scene is bookended with stylized shots of them emotionlessly getting into and out of the elevator, a comedic take on the idea that Hank would never show passion in public. The gag humanizes the character and makes the emotion of the scene even stronger; Gilligan says that the audience can have “a smile of recognition” at moments “that strike us as reflective of human behaviour.” With well-placed jokes, we can identify with characters and their troubles—and best of all, a show can avoid becoming as dull as Dexter.