It's only quite recently that we've begun hearing comments, all of them highly favorable, about a TV show called Breaking Bad, even though it's been on the air since 2008. I had not come across references to it before, though I knew its lead actor, Bryan Cranston, from a couple of movies.
So we borrowed the DVDs of the first season and watched them. The shows that B. was watching new at the time this one first appeared, like Pushing Daisies and Eli Stone, which I tagged along with for a few episodes, were surreal in a hallucinatory way, which I found disagreeable. I liked that they were strange, but not that they didn't feel grounded in anything.
The first episode of Breaking Bad begins with a scene as bizarre and surreal as anything I've seen on television. A pair of men's trousers floats through the quiet desert air, then lands on a dirt road where it's instantly run over by an RV proceeding at breakneck speed, driven by a man wearing nothing but his undershorts and a respirator. The RV runs off the road and gets stuck in a ditch, the man stumbles out and hears sirens approaching, and the scene keeps getting weirder for a couple minutes until it cuts off at a point of high tension.
Then the show does something I really wasn't expecting. It goes back in time and slowly, methodically, and clearly explains the background to everything weird you've just seen, including the airborne trousers. Even more amazingly, the explanation a) not only makes sense, but b) doesn't undercut or special-plead anything away.
In other words, it properly grounds the weirdness. However, then it ceases being weird. This is a grim drama, with distant humorous overtones, but without being at all actually funny, about a man who steps deliberately into deep trouble. So far it's like Fargo, except that Fargo's protagonist is a hopelessly incompetent nebbish. Except for those overtones, Breaking Bad is more like A Simple Plan, the movie in which Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are hunters who find a crashed small plane with a huge load of money in the snow. As with Plan, in this story the protagonist has control over his situation and some wits at his disposal, but not complete control, or complete knowledge, and it's in that gap that the complications arise.
This is where my limitations on this show also arise. I want to see a story like this as a movie, I want the movie to end, and I want to go away and shudder. I don't want a continuing series. Watching the seven episodes as if they were a single 5 1/2 hour movie - it ends on a tension point but not a cliffhanger - I liked that the show kept chugging along at speed and, unlike its RV, never ran into a ditch, a problem that killed Mad Men for me before the end of the first season; I liked that it had more space to explore various aspects of its plot than movies give, such as how to dispose of a dead body, a matter treated with a fine mixture of grue and a light touch; but it also had digressions. One whole episode, the one in which Jesse visits his parents, was essentially useless and could have been thrown away.
What's the problem? you might ask. Don't I like the stand-alone, non-arc episodes of Buffy? Yes, but there's two major differences. One is that Buffy, at least in its earlier seasons, was not so much about propelling the arc plot along that it felt odd to leave it be for a while. Not true in this intensely plot-oriented show. The other is that I liked the Buffy characters; I enjoyed spending time in their company. I don't like these characters, especially Jesse, whom I find basically annoying. To be fair, I don't think they're intended to be likable. But that does mean I want to see the movie and then go home, not to live in it.
Which is why, even though I was highly impressed by season 1 and enjoyed it, I don't think I'll be watching any more of Breaking Bad.