What Made This The Most Successful Show Of All Time?
Writers are fascinated by good stories, and are forever trying to analyse their structure to understand why lightning strikes, but perhaps the answer is simpler than we realise. I resisted watching ‘Breaking Bad’ for a long time because the subject matter didn’t seem that appealing (terminal cancer patient starts drug dealing), and had to be pushed towards the box set by friends who waxed lyrical about the show.
What quickly became apparent was that the storytelling took precedent over every traditional popular drama element. Instead of the usual structure we’re all told to pursue – ‘beats’ for action, bouts of sex or nudity, lurid scenes to spike interest – we got a traditional story played out by its participants in a carefully constructed, evenly paced narrative with six main characters and a handful of locations.
But what made it so very special?
One theory I have is that the show’s endless surprises were all character-driven, and forced you to think more deeply about what you were watching, as opposed to say ‘The Wire’ or ‘West Wing’, where plotting and dialogue was so fast that you barely registered many of the characters. In ‘Breaking Bad’ you could see what the characters are thinking and can sometimes second-guess their responses, and yet – as in real life – you can’t allow for the vicissitudes of fate.
Obviously none of this was accidental, but a careful response to what was becoming increasingly obvious – that you couldn’t endlessly structure shows by upping the ante on sex and violence. The most obvious lesson that writers learn is one of the toughest to master; that wilful people drive stories, not the other way around. They may be caught up in an epic sweep of events, but they are responsible for their own actions, and actions have consequences.
Perhaps we can finally leave behind all those terrible Syd Field-type screenwriting manuals that bang on about journeys, redemption, story arcs and the dreaded What Has Our Hero Learned? In the last few years there’s been a lot of abdication of real character responsibility, but now the wheel is turning once more. Let’s hope it leads to more character-driven drama and comedy – it can be as far-fetched and bizarre as it likes so long as you believe in the people. Cheap shock effects don’t cut it anymore.