Yesterday, I lamented how the entertainment industry glamorizes violence. The glorification of dastardly villains, I argued, is much more pernicious than mere gratuitous violence we might have found in, say, a Sylvester Stallone popcorn movie of the 1980s.
This doesn’t mean we should return to the cheesy tropes of yesteryear. So how can Hollywood produce sophisticated and realistic programs in a more responsible manner? For the answer to that, look no further than AMC’s critically-acclaimed “Breaking Bad” series.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview Salon’s Erik Nelson conducted with “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, which I think makes the point:
“Breaking Bad” really deals with the consequences of violence. Bad things don’t just happen, and then, during the commercial break, get tidied up, with no consequences. You sweat the details; you sweat the consequences of your characters’ actions. It adds a dimension to “Breaking Bad” that is extraordinary.
I am a great consumer of television, especially as a kid growing up when I still had time to watch it. I’ve seen way more TV than anyone has a right to. It finally dawned on me that TV is about stasis, and it is about life, whereas our lives are about change. We get older with every passing moment. We change in our lives, we change our hairstyles. We change our outlooks on life, our political views sometimes. TV by design has to have a certain amount of stasis to it, because the goal in television is to have a TV show that lasts for many decades. But it’s hard to have characters on your TV show change when you are trying to provide a safe haven for the viewers, a familiar place for the viewers to come back to week in and week out. And, to that end, when you have a cop show, and a cop shoots a perp, that rule of stasis, that self-imposed stricture of stasis, dictates that a particular act of violence doesn’t resonate too strongly with the character, certainly within the body of the episode. The cop sits around with his boss, after the shooting, and the boss says, “You did what you had to do.” We’ve all seen that scene. But the next episode, it’s like it never happened. And I’ve written plenty of hours of TV with those kind of moments, certainly on “The X-Files.” But it occurred to me that it would be nice to try something different.
And that’s why from the outset, “Breaking Bad” was very much intended as an experiment in change, and in fact the opposite of the marching order of most TV shows. I wanted the characters to change week in and week out, primarily the main character, Walter White. So, to that end, when that ability and when that opportunity was available to me as a writer, I took it and ran with it. If Walt kills somebody, it’s going to have an effect on him. It’s going to have an effect on everyone around him. He’s never going to forget it. He’s going to carry emotions like baggage, and the baggage will weigh him down more and more. And it will change who he is, and you as viewer will never forget those moments, because he won’t allow you to, because he himself will remember them. And if it’s not he who feels bad in a given week about something, it’s Jesse, or some other character.
Besides being terrifically entertaining — well-written and well-acted — “Breaking Bad” is also a show with a conscience. It doesn’t get preachy; the message is subtle — but relentless, nonetheless. Episodes can serve as teachable moments. There is some socially redeeming value attached to watching.
Over time, it becomes clearly apparent to anyone watching that our decisions have serious consequences — often unintended consequences. (This is the opposite of glamorizing violence or villains.)
Watch an episode or two, and you’ll come away believing there is a slippery slope — that seemingly small decisions can metastasize. You’ll adopt a worldview which says you can’t compartmentalize your work and your life — that character is domain-general. And you’ll scoff at the notion that our “private” evil acts are somehow victimless.
These are good lessons to learn. I just hope the purveyors of glorified violence in the entertainment industry are also paying attention.