“Breaking Bad’s” Walter White took TV drama to the dark side. How did he get so many viewers to follow him there?
This image released by AMC shows Bryan Cranston as Walter White, left, and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in a scene from "Breaking Bad." he program was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding drama series on, Thursday July 18, 2013. Paul was nominated for best supporting actor in a drama series and Cranston was nominated for best actor in a drama series. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Emmy ceremony will be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris. It will air Sept. 22 on CBS. (AP Photo/AMC, Frank Ockenfels ) ORG XMIT: MIN2013080713564067
LOS ANGELES – Ward Cleaver had it all — until he didn’t. In the course of one fateful week, he lost his job, discovered his wife’s affair with the milkman and learned he had terminal lung cancer. Reeling from the tragic chain of events, Ward hit the brandy bottle. Hard. He began selling doobie to the neighborhood kids. Bundles of cash were found stashed under the lid of the BBQ grill. And then, one day, Eddie Haskell went missing. ...
Pitching a dark version of “Leave It to Beaver” would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But in the contemporary world of cable, where viewers are encouraged to root for serial killers, coldhearted admen, bloodthirsty bikers or meth-dealing teachers — as in “Breaking Bad,” which begins its final run Sunday — this is practically a no-brainer.
“I think we like to see somebody portray the worst in us that we’ve either felt or wanted to express. It’s kind of liberating,” said Nelson McCormack, a veteran TV director whose credits include “Boss,” a series about a corrupted politician. “You watch Kevin Spacey being ruthless in ‘House of Cards,’ and you think back to a situation where you wanted to say the exact same thing with that kind of elegance and prowess.”
Rooting for the bad guy is nothing new. Think: Warner Bros.’ 1930s gangster flicks, or even William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
Now it’s TV’s turn.
“It’s just a younger medium,” said Patty Jenkins, whose credits include the feature film “Monster” and the Emmy-winning pilot of “The Killing.” “With all these art forms, you start off with a juggling street performer who has to work his way into the circus tent. Movies always had a captive audience, so they were able to do deeper, more complex things.
“Television was always about ‘Look at me now! Look at me now! Now go away!’ That’s starting to change.”
Turning Mr. Chips into Scarface
Nowhere is that more evident than in “Breaking Bad,” which airs the first of its eight final episodes Sunday.
In 2008, creator Vince Gilligan introduced us to Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher saddled with his son’s tuition fees, dashed career opportunities and a prognosis of terminal cancer. He impulsively decides to dive into the drug business with a lackluster former student.
Over five seasons, actor Bryan Cranston — once best known as the eternally moronic father on “Malcolm in the Middle” — has steadily transmuted White into one of the cruelest characters in TV history, a guy who’s so despicable he’d poison an innocent child to set up an adversary.
“What attracted me was the notion of trying to take a serialized television series and change this character in a way that has never been done before,” said Cranston, who has won three Emmys for the role. “I was aghast by that.”
Gilligan’s stated goal: To take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface, with the audience dropping their sympathy for White along the way.
But something unexpected happened. Fans have been reluctant to let go, sticking by their hero’s side even if it means being dragged into hell. The pull is so strong that White’s wife, Skylar, has been hissed at on social media, even though she was initially painted as the series’ moral center.
“She was the one who most consistently said, ‘You can’t just do these things and not have consequences,’ ” said Anna Gunn, who recently picked up an Emmy nomination for her role as Skylar. “And so she became kind of a villain to people who really, really identified with Walt and were behind him and were rooting for him. If the audience really sympathized greatly with her and sided with her, then you would have lost your sympathy for Walt and then the show, I think, would have been thrown off balance.”
Bad boys are more fun
The descent into darkness has great appeal for both the writers and actors, for obvious reasons. It’s always more fun to hang with the bad guy.
Cranston has had the rare, rich opportunity to dig into a character who builds a stronger shell as the series progresses.