As we prepare for the fourth season of Breaking Bad, there’s a big article in the New York Times about the less famous (but no less good) of the two shows that put AMC on the map as a producer of original drama. (Those two shows are so good that it’ll take a lot more than The Killing to squander all the network’s good will.) The piece focuses mostly on the creator, Vince Gilligan, a genial soul who channels his dark side into the show.
I think the article probably strains a bit to explain why Breaking Bad is popular in red or purple states – like Missouri and Tennessee – and not very popular on the Coasts. Part of the explanation in the piece is that Gilligan gives the show an unusual sense of morality and a preoccupation with “foisting suffering on characters who sin.” That strikes me as a little dubious; most shows punish people for doing bad things, and any creator will claim that he or she made characters suffer for doing bad things. (The decision to let someone off completely scot-free, even in a dark cable show, is basically a special shock effect, like in Crimes and Misdemeanors; creators will usually try to indicate that someone has suffered personally, even if he or she gets away with it in the end, not necessarily out of morality but just because suffering is more entertaining.) Besides, the show leaves it open as to whether bad things happen to the characters because of karma or just because it’s amusing and exciting.
Part of the fun of doing a show about morally ambiguous and/or awful people is that it enables the creators to beat them up for our enjoyment. The piece starts by describing the fun the writers have in finding new, creative, and budget-friendly ways for Jesse to be beaten up. A lot of the point of the character is to raise questions about to what extent he “deserves” what happens to him; we’re horrified by his constant humiliation because this is not straightfoward retribution. But if he were just a completely innocent person being treated like this, it would be a depressing horror story. The grey-on-grey morality of the characters is what makes black comedy work.
The Middle America appeal of Breaking Bad may owe more to the fact that it is set in, and filmed in Middle America – as the article notes, the biggest market for the show is New Mexico, because it’s filmed in New Mexico. Also, the article notes something I like to think about but don’t think about in enough depth: original cable series are meant to fit in, often in oblique ways, with the reruns where the network makes its money. In this case, Breaking Bad is trying to get some of the very male, often non-coastal audience that goes for the Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson movies AMC shows (with commercials). It’s not the same kind of story, of course, but it’s just generally part of the network brand, just as Remember WENN fit with the AMC brand back when it was a classic-movie nostalgia channel.