In what must have sounded like the ultimate humblebrag, I used to complain that I was no good at watching TV. Oh yes, I enjoyed a PBS or BBC series now and again, but that hardly counts. What everyone was watching (The West Wing? Friends?), I couldn’t make myself watch. It wasn’t always that way. In the 1990s I planned my evenings around The X Files, Twin Peaks, and the first few years of Survivor. In the 1980s people knew not to call me on Thursday nights (Knot’s Landing) or at 10:30 (Mary Tyler Moore reruns). Some of my fondest childhood memories involve TV shows (Get Smart, Bewitched, The Addams Family, Gilligan’s Island, Mission Impossible, Bonanza … the list is endless).
But now, all of a sudden, I’m back in front of the TV, both enjoying the entertainment and feeling puzzled. The old, good TV often involved good things happening to good people – things did tend to work out nicely for Mary Tyler Moore. Or bad things happening to bad people – the villains got caught on Mission Impossible and Bonanza. But today, for some reason, TV audiences want to mix it up. We’re entertained by the misfortunes of good people, but even more by the successes of bad people.
I get this, when it comes to Breaking Bad, which must be the most addictive TV show ever made. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) starts out as a good but uninspired husband, father, and chemistry teacher and then “breaks bad” after he’s diagnosed with cancer. He must find the money to pay for top-dollar medical treatments, having refused the help of a rich former business partner. One day, while tagging along with his drug enforcement agent brother-in-law, he stumbles upon a solution: cooking meth with small-time drug dealer Jesse Pinkman (lovably played by Aaron Paul). It turns out Walter is a superb meth cook, but now he has to learn to navigate the violent drug trade in Albuquerque and south of the border. He becomes good at that too – his exploits are a perfect example of what philosopher Gwen Bradford calls “evil achievements”. He’s a huge success – at stuff he shouldn’t be doing.
The fascinating thing is that Walter’s badness doesn’t make him altogether bad or unlikeable until well into the fourth or fifth season. Curiously – and contrary to what we learned at Aristotle’s knee – crime actually makes Walter flourish in some ways. He starts to be more competent, better at teaching chemistry, better in bed with his wife, more fun as a father, stronger, and better looking. His moral compass isn’t entirely broken at first; it still sets limits on what he’s prepared to do. Very gradually it starts to malfunction, as he more fully occupies the role of “Heisenberg”, the invincible meth king. It’s amazing how the show preserves Walter’s likeability and even some degree of respectability for so long, a mark of the show’s fine writing and acting. We do want good things to happen to this increasingly bad person, practically to the very end. The show masterfully puts us in that strange state of mind.
When Breaking Bad came to an end, I cast about for something to fill the void and discovered House of Cards, the less addictive but still riveting Netflix series. House of Cards also treats the viewer to richly rewarded badness but in the setting of elegant Washington DC and the halls of presidential and congressional power. Frank (Kevin Spacey) is Democratic House majority whip, a totally Machiavellian schemer who will do anything to anyone to gain more political power. His wife Claire (Robin Wright) is a cold, conniving beauty, always ready to support Frank’s latest scheme. The two of them are never conflicted, never remorseful. They barrel down the road to greater power, crushing anyone in their path. Other characters are set up to be particularly weak and vulnerable, only to make their downfall at the hands of the Underwoods that much more disturbing/delicious.
I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to look forward to the day when the Underwoods receive their just deserts, and I’m pretty sure that day will come. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to find them amusingly debonair and crafty. When they do something detestable, we’re supposed to enjoy finding them detestable. Seeing these evil-doers succeed is supposed to be a thrill. Only it doesn’t work for me, because the Underwoods are too thoroughly bad. They don’t “break bad” for understandable reasons, but simply are bad, through and through. They’re simply vile.
Suffused with references to drug chemistry, Breaking Bad actually has something interesting to say about the chemistry of evil – where it comes from, what it can be combined with, when it drowns out good, when it doesn’t. It can make sense to cheer for a flawed character but House of Cards proves it doesn’t always.