I’m not exactly sure how we got here, but somehow AMC is now marketing a television show about a terminally ill chemistry teacher who cooks meth in his underwear. Perhaps explaining the absurdity of this is unnecessary, but things always look more important in list form, so here it goes:
1. A year ago, AMC had aired a grand total of zero – as in, one less than one – original dramas on its network. However, “Mad Men” debuted last summer to largely positive reviews, and now the network’s meth drama, “Breaking Bad,” is shaping AMC into a legitimate host of original dramas. Considering AMC stands for American Movie Classics, and the network is so young it couldn’t even lock down an amc.com domain name, this is a tad surprising.
2. It’s a show about meth. If there is a less sexy drug than meth that doesn’t double as some sort of livestock tranquilizer, I’ve never heard of it. Meth scares the crap out of me and every non-rural human I’ve ever met. Showtime’s own drug-centric show, “Weeds,” was fairly controversial when it debuted in the summer of ’05, but Bryan Cranston’s (“Malcolm in the Middle”) character in “Breaking Bad” makes Nancy Botwin look like Danny Tanner with hair.
3. It’s a show about meth . that’s not on HBO. How “Breaking Bad” exists outside of HBO is beyond me. Perhaps the premium channel goliath was leery of treading on the territory of “Weeds” by developing its own desperate-household-leader-turned-drug-lord series, but “Breaking Bad” just seemed destined for less-restrictive airwaves. While it found its home on basic cable, the subject matter and general grittiness recall “Six Feet Under” and other HBO dramas, more so than the typical basic cable drama.
Yet for all of the similarities “Breaking Bad” has to the prototypical HBO drama – from its fascinating but difficult subject matter to Cranston’s surprisingly moving turn as Walter White – there is something decidedly un-HBO about the show’s actual incarnation, and I’m not sure whether it aids or detracts from AMC’s second original drama. Like basically everything else, it’s a money issue, but not in an obvious way.
Although HBO’s primary draw is its lack of censorship, it also packs something almost all basic cable networks can’t get away with: A commercial-free broadcast. Because the network doesn’t rely on ad revenue to keep it afloat, its original programming is essentially break-free. But while this doesn’t necessarily benefit or subtract from its programming, it certainly affects how the viewer internalizes the product on some level.
Most people – including communists – would agree that commercials are inherently bad, but perhaps structuring episodes around a series of breaks can actually bolster the impact of the material. Whereas HBO dramas are structured like hour-long films that continuously build on the viewer, a basic cable drama isn’t afforded the luxury of a continuous broadcast and must work around a series of breaks mandated by the network. If used correctly, these breaks can actually leave the viewer pondering the events that just transpired while Nissans roll across the screen, which is something the viewer wouldn’t have been forced to do while watching something on HBO.
So while watching the pilot for “Breaking Bad” last week, I continually found myself analyzing the show and the depths Cranston’s protagonist was sinking to before the episode was over. Conversely, while watching the most recent episode of HBO’s “The Wire,” I was never afforded any sort of break, and had to piece everything together afterward. I don’t know which broadcast form had a greater impact on me, but I do know there was a difference.
And even though TiVo and DVD box sets have changed the way most people consume TV, it can’t be discounted that conventional shows are made around commercial breaks that HBO doesn’t have to worry about. It spans across genres, too, as comedies like “The Simpsons” have prided themselves on act-ending jokes, while HBO and Showtime comedies are just working within an open 22 minutes.
So while I’d like to see “Breaking Bad” on HBO for the content that isn’t AMC-kosher, I’m equally interested in seeing the show on a premium network for the altered manner in which it would have been delivered and, to a slightly lesser degree, constructed.
Then again, maybe it’s better as is – meth labs get cramped without the occasional break.
Passman is campaigning for commercials on HBO. Give him your signature at email@example.com