As I promised in Part 1, I’m back to talk about two of my favorite TV shows, not just currently but of all time: Breaking Bad and Parks and Recreation. These shows seem on the surface like they couldn’t possibly be more different from each other, and indeed there are some significant differences, but the reasons I like both shows are almost identical. They both have incredible, well-written characters that I absolutely love.
Loving the characters of Parks and Recreation is easy, because they are all good people. Every single one of them, with the arguable exceptions of Ron’s ex-wives, are good, nice, loving people who go out of their way to help each other. I hadn’t realized how rare that was in a TV show until this one made me look back and try to remember another one like it. When the show debuted I assumed it was an Office clone, and in some ways it was; it has the same documentary shtick, it has the same veneer of workplace humor, and so on. Since I never liked The Office I didn’t bother with Parks and Rec, but when I finally gave it another shot I saw that the two shows have very different feels. The humor in The Office is about how none of them get along, and they fight all the time, and hey look at how uncomfortable we made THIS situation. The humor in Parks and Rec is about the ridiculous lengths people will go to to do what they think is right, which slides it into farce territory: the tragic pursuit of a humorous goal.
(Sidenote: Are you familiar with that classification system? A drama is the serious pursuit of a serious goal, a comedy is the humorous pursuit of a humorous goal; a tragedy is the tragic pursuit of a serious goal, and a farce is the tragic pursuit of a humorous goal. I honestly don’t know if that system provides any meaningful benefit, but I learned it in high school and I’ve always remembered it.)
The government angle of Parks and Rec is a big part of what makes it work: it contributes to the farcical nature, and it gives the characters something to fight against without requiring a specific villain. Perhaps more than that, though–and this goes back to the whole Care Bear “I love shows about nice people” thing I was talking about before–it is endlessly delightful and sometimes even inspiring to watch the main character, Leslie Knope, never give up hope in the American government. Our country is seriously messed up right now, and I’ve already wasted too much of your time whining about all the things I see going wrong with it, and yet Leslie always sees a bright side. Even while the show makes fun of bureaucracy and town meetings and everything else, it does it with a loving smile. Leslie believes in something, she works for it tirelessly, and the people around her recognize that and do what they can to support her. As the formula for a snarky modern sitcom this seems too antiquated to even exist, let alone work, and yet it does. That’s practically a miracle.
Which is not to say that all the characters are bubbly and happy like Leslie. One of the best characters on the show is April, who begins as a jaded teenager and slowly grows into a jaded adult; she aggressively refuses to care about anything, because that’s the personality she’s chosen for herself (you’ve probably met plenty of teenagers just like her), and yet inside you can tell that she does care, very much, about a lot of things. As the seasons progress she falls in love, and her pursuit of that man is one of the sweetest, most wonderful things I have ever seen on TV–not because it’s sweet, but because it earns its sweetness. The show spends so much time driving home the points that “April doesn’t care about anything,” and “April doesn’t smile,” so that when you finally see her care about something, or on those rare occasions when she actually smiles, it means something. You haven’t just witnessed a character on a sitcom do something nice for someone else, you’ve witnessed a foundational shift in the way a character interacts with the world. Which is a long and winding way for me to get back to the reason I love this show: the characters are so well-drawn, so real and human and flawed and lovable, that you feel like you know them. Perhaps more importantly, you feel like you want to know them.
The characters in Breaking Bad, on the other hand, are not characters you’d ever like to hang out with or even meet–but they’re still incredibly “good” characters that I am endlessly drawn to. I am using the word “good” here to mean “well-written,” because no one in the show is really “good.” They are, on the other hand, incredibly sympathetic. you never agree with any of Walt’s decisions, but you can understand why he makes every single one of them.
The stated purpose of Breaking Bad is to show a protagonist become an antagonist. It’s about a chemistry teacher in the throes of a midlife crisis (lame job, second lamer job, unexpected baby, and of course cancer) who starts making meth. He starts mostly on a whim, then continues because he wants the money, and by season three is doing it because it gives him a power and control over his life that he’s never felt any other way. Step by step, choice by choice, you watch Walt make a series of decisions and actions that feel entirely justified in context, yet are completely unconscionable when you step back to see the whole picture. My friend Steve calls it “the ultimate supervillain origin story,” and that’s not far off. In simpler terms it is classic tragedy, the fall of a good man trying to keep up with the consequences of his actions, as compelling as Oedipus or King Lear and every bit as brilliant. The fact that you don’t like the main character is beside the point–you don’t like Othello either, as a person, and you’re not supposed to. Tragedy is about knowing someone’s going to fall, watching it happen, and feeling the catharsis on the other side.
In contrast to some of these other shows I’ve been talking about, Breaking Bad is deeply serialized. It’s a show about change, and that kind of show can’t survive with a stable status quo. People come and go, people live and die, people keep and tell secrets, and every single one of those events has consequences the characters will have to deal with. One of the most devastating things that happens to Walt comes at the end of the very first episode, when his reckless experiment cooking meth DOESN’T end in a shoot-out with the cops. He gets away with it, but he was kind of hoping to go out with a bang–”suicide by police.” He thought he could do something stupid, die, and not have to worry about it anymore, but that’s not the way life works. Tomorrow the sun comes up, and you’re still here, and you have to live with everything you did yesterday.
Plot and character aside, I would watch Breaking Bad just for the writing. One of my favorite episodes involves an old man in a wheelchair who can barely move, but he can ding a little bell, and the writers wring Hitchcock levels of tension out of that sound effect. Another great scene had two heroin junkies desperately happy about a windfall of money, babbling on and on about all they things they were going to do and how they were going to flush their heroin down the toilet and never touch it again; the word choice and the pace of the dialogue make it obvious that they really, really, want to do this, but at the same time it’s painfully obvious that they won’t. And when the character of Saul shows up, the Platonic ideal of a greasy lawyer, holy crap: every word out of that man’s mouth is pure gold. Even the visual structure of the show, a huge part of writing for screen, is brilliant. One scene cuts from a man laying out clothes for his daughter’s funeral, a blue blouse on a pink bed, straight to another man’s newborn baby girl in exactly the same pose and background. The writers care about this show, and they pay attention to everything from the tiny details to the apocalyptic climaxes. I do not exaggerate (nor am I alone) when I call it one of the best TV shows of all time.
Because I’m on the subject, I’ll close with a quick list of my “favorite TV shows ever.” Presented in no particular order:
Dead Like Me
I didn’t plan for those to be the first four letters of the alphabet, that’s funny. Sorry I can’t think of a fifth–there’s a lot of shows I love, but nothing I really feel like putting in this company.