Why isn't Breaking Bad more popular?

22:40, Jul 12 2012

I love Breaking Bad. But I often wonder: why don't more people love it as much as I do?

It's not just me, either. Breaking Bad is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the absolute best, show on all of television right now. No less than 35 different critics included it on their Best Of 2011 lists. Nine of those critics named it their #1 show of the year after its truly astounding fourth season.

The fourth season started on Four last night with an episode titled Box Cutter*. The much-anticipated fifth season starts Monday afternoon (NZ time) in the United States. No date set for NZ, yet.

Breaking Bad has also been a hit at the Emmys: Bryan Cranston (who plays Walter White) won Best Actor for the first three seasons, joining Bill Cosby as the only actors to win three consecutive times**. Aaron Paul (who plays Jesse Pinkman) won Best Supporting Actor for Season 3. The second and third season were also nominated for Outstanding Drama Series. The fourth season will be eligible this year, and should be the hot favourite in those major categories.

Yet, despite the critical acclaim and award season success, mainstream success eludes Breaking Bad. Even though it seems like everyone is talking about it, the ratings are low in the States even by cable television standards. The antics of Walter White have captured the imagination of its niche audience on cable (and through downloads), yet failed to capture a much wider audience in the same way as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones.

The question is: Why?

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Obviously mainstream success is achievable if you're a show being made for cable. Channels like AMC and HBO are often considered the home of quality, niche shows that attract a fairly limited audience; think of something like Treme, a unique show which feels important, but which doesn't grab too many viewers.

But HBO and AMC are also full of shows like The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones, which have become much larger pop culture phenomena. Perhaps the best example is True Blood: now in its fifth season, it's still one of HBO's biggest hits, grabs large audiences in international markets, and is a part of the larger pop culture picture (due in part to the recent vampire craze). People know about True Blood, they know who stars like Alexander Skarsgard and Anna Paquin are.

The thing is, you could make a convincing argument that Breaking Bad is better than any of those shows. The writing is more interesting than the likes of Mad Men, and more engrossing than the likes of Homeland. The production values and cinematic style match anything you've seen on Game Of Thrones or The Walking Dead. The performances are as good, or better, than any of those shows; Cranston's Walter White is one of the most intriguing characters on television. By the way, I've just put it on a par with four of the best shows on TV right now.

If you ask me, Breaking Bad should be seen by more people, it should get the recognition it deserves, and it should take its place as one of the greatest television shows ever made. It frustrates me that it doesn't draw a bigger audience and isn't a bigger hit than True Blood, which is a ridiculously inferior product; if Breaking Bad were Walt's blue meth, True Blood would be half a paracetamol. (Game Of Thrones would be normal meth in this analogy.)

On the other hand, maybe I'm just biased? It's entirely possible that I'm just drawn to the story on Breaking Bad, and while the performances are extremely good, the show itself is lacking and I just gloss over that fact because I enjoy it. Perhaps the reason Breaking Bad hasn't gone mainstream is that it is a truly niche show with a cult following, and it will never appeal to a mass audience. Unless meth cooks take over from vampires as a cultural fixation.

What do you think: Why hasn't Breaking Bad found true mainstream success? Are you enjoying the third and fourth season, currently airing on Four? Are you looking forward to the fifth season, starting next week? (remember: no spoilers)

(*) The sight of Gustavo Fring calmly getting changed into a pair of overalls, as Walt and Jesse warily eye him up and wonder what is about to happen, is one of the most intense and most disturbing things you'll ever see.

(**) Bill Cosby won from 1966-1968 for his role in I Spy, not for The Cosby Show as I had originally suspected.

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Coming up in the next week, July 14 to 20 ...

Midsomer Murders, new episodes - Prime, Saturdays at 8.40pm
Homeland, Season 1 encore - TV3, Sundays at 10.30pm-ish
America's Next Top Model: British Invasion - Four, Mondays at 7.30pm
My Cat From Hell - Animal Planet, Mondays at 10.30pm
How I Met Your Mother, Season 8 finale - Four, Tuesday at 7.30pm
New Girl, Season 1 finale - Four, Tuesday at 8.00pm
The Newsroom, preview of first episode only - SoHo, Wednesday at 8.30pm
Weeds, Season 8 - SoHo, Thursdays at 8.30pm
Hamish & Andy's Euro Gap Year - TV3, Fridays at 7.30pm

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