Popular TV shows rely on moral ambiguity

If there’s an unspoken rule in this golden age of television, it’s that the truly great shows embrace moral ambiguity.

The Sopranos kicked things off with a sympathetic portrayal of mafia life and paved the way for mature, serialized storytelling like nothing the small screen had ever witnessed. From the cops and dealers of The Wire to the ad execs of Mad Men to the knights, nobles and bastards on Game of Thrones, the worlds in which these characters live and the systems by which they operate coerce them into compromising ethical positions.

The most obvious exception to the rule — and perhaps the best show on television because of it — is Breaking Bad. The story of high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook extraordinaire Walter White (played with consistent, Emmy-winning brilliance by Bryan Cranston) starts off by giving its lead character all the reason in the world to turn to a life of crime. After decades of professional disappointments, a cancer diagnosis renders him nearly terminally ill with no way to provide for his family.

But while serial killer Dexter can never escape his vengeful need to kill and the survivors on The Walking Dead are trapped in a zombie apocalypse, Walter is repeatedly given ways out of the meth business. He never opts to take them, and it’s his choices that make him a terrible person.

That’s the backbone of the show: Take a normal man and make him as black a villain as there’s ever been, not because of his circumstances but because of his actions. It’s up to each individual viewer to decide when he reaches the point of no return.

It sounds like a thrilling premise now, but when creator Vince Gilligan was pitching the idea, TV studios were less than enthusiastic. Over the summer, USC student Gus Bendinelli was given the opportunity to visit the set for several days of shooting and learned that in the beginning, “Sony Pictures expressed concerns over whether the show could even make it off the ground, or if its subject matter was accessible enough for mainstream audiences.”

“It was clear that Breaking Bad was something that had never been done on television before,” Bendinelli said.

Sure enough, for the first few seasons, the audience numbers were nothing special. But the ones who were watching were privy to one of television’s most compelling dramas, and the repeated accolades awarded to the actors secured Breaking Bad’s status as the best show nobody was watching.

As the quality only elevated over time — the score on MetaCritic.com climbed higher with each new batch of episodes — it became the show everyone knew they should be watching. Now, as it finishes up the first half of its fifth and final season, it’s reached new levels of popularity. With 3 million viewers, last Sunday’s episode was the series’ most watched.

Breaking Bad’s newfound popularity even justified an entire art show at Gallery 1988, a venue with exhibits inspired by pop culture landmarks. Dozens of pieces were on display and nearly all of them sold-out within days to fans willing to spend anywhere from $50 to $2,000 to get their hands on a piece of Breaking Bad memorabilia.

The show inspires that kind of cult-like devotion, with newcomers frequently burning through every episode in a matter of days and then finding themselves thoroughly unaccustomed to waiting an entire week for a new installment.

Yet that’s nothing compared to the season breaks, which would last upwards of a year while Gilligan and his writers decided what they wanted to do with the next phase of the story — sometimes meticulously planning every chapter so that episode titles link together to reveal future events.

The show mines every introduced concept for all that it’s worth, explores the consequences of every action in full and, as Bendinelli observed, “isn’t afraid to explore the depths of its characters,” no matter the dark reaches to which they lead.

Make no mistake — though Breaking Bad’s twisted, black sense of humor might contribute to its as title as one of the best shows on television, the pervading sense of dread and increasingly reprehensible actions of the characters make for a tense, soul-wrenching viewing experience.

“The writing pulls no punches,” Bendinelli said.

Here’s a show where every death means something, where characters choose to destroy themselves. No one’s watching for the happy endings. But once hooked, it’s impossible to turn away. To use an all too obvious metaphor: It’s addictive. But when the product is this pure, why fight it?


The last episode of the season airs Sunday on AMC at 10 p.m.


Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.

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