What Made This The Most Successful Show Of All Time?

The Arts

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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.

6 comments on “What Made This The Most Successful Show Of All Time?”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Yes, character makes the story. Then incident and character response. Robots can only take the reader so far and then a mature interest wans. “Robots. I do not love them terribly well, They’re big and angry and oh how they smell, of burned out electrodes and a fried oil chill.”

  2. Steve2 says:

    Just finished watching the Fargo tv series, which I would recommend. Plenty of surprises and another character driven story. We did break off halfway through to revisit the film which made for an interesting comparison.

    The series worked because it went down a different path to the movie, any similarities and original movie lines worked as “easter eggs”.

    Also watched the The Dusk til Dawn series, where I thought that the new material was weaker than QT’s original film- which was replayed as the spine of the story. Hopefully Robert Rodrigues will go for an original story for his next tv effort.

  3. Cid says:

    I have to say I preferred Fargo as mentioned by Steve2. Breaking Bad just seemed to become interminably dispiriting the longer it went on. I’m sure that way of life would end up with slaughter and mayhem but watching constant moaning and shouting and explosions all the time with barely a moment of relief between the carnage made me increasingly wonder why was bothering. By the end I was watching out of habit alone.

    Fargo was a lot stranger, unexpectedly shifting the plot when you didn’t expect it, and with the humour in the script never detracting from the horrible things the characters were doing to each other. A lot more like The Sopranos actually, which never lost its sense of out-of-place levity between the many murders.

  4. Mike Cane says:

    I must third the recommendation of Fargo. Brilliant performances, movie-like in most aspects, and the creator/sole writer Noah Hawley is a freakin genius.

  5. Keith says:

    I think Breaking Bad could ever be bettered by any other TV Drama. It was simply outstanding. It just seem to have it all.

  6. Keith says:

    Should read ‘don’t’ think

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