Here’s a confession I hate making public: I cannot for the life of me watch Breaking Bad.
Oh, I know, it’s one of the great television shows of our time — on a par with The Sopranos and Mad Men and The Wire and anything else that people tweet obsessively about on Sunday nights. I want to like Breaking Bad, so that I can fit in with all the cool, smart people who like cool, smart shows. I recognize its quality. I like Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris and Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn. I’ve been a Giancarlo Esposito fan since he was on Bakersfield P.D., and I’m pretty sure you haven’t seen that.
But maybe Breaking Bad tells its story — the tale of Walter White, a cancer-ridden chemistry teacher-turned-meth producer-slash-Albuquerque supervillain — too well. Because, honestly, each and every episode that I’ve watched has filled me with increasing dread. I don’t feel enlightened or informed or entertained when I watch an episode: Mostly I get a tummy ache. You’ve heard of “cringe humor,” the way Larry David can make you laugh and be appalled at the same time? Well, for me, Breaking Bad is “cringe drama,” so intense in its depiction of a man and marriage in decline that I want to run as far away from the TV as possible in order to avoid having the feelings it makes me feel.
So I’ve renounced it.
I’m not watching the show anymore — I made it to about halfway through Season Two on Netflix — no matter how much word-of-mouth praises it, no matter how many Emmys it wins or favorable critiques it receives. I’m simply done.
This isn’t a moral judgment. I don’t think the purpose of art is to make me feel good all the time. Often, I love anti-heroes. I enjoyed watching Michael Corleone turn from fresh-faced war hero to dead-eyed mobster, and I enjoyed eventually watching him pay the price for losing his soul. What’s the difference?
Maybe this: It’s easier to imagine myself as Walter White. And so it’s more difficult to hold the drama at a distance.
Unlike Corleone, I wasn’t born to mafia riches. Unlike The Shield‘s Vic Mackey, I don’t work in an high-crime environment, rubbing elbows with murderers and drug dealers every day. But a slightly underpaid middle-class existence threatened by health problems? Yeah … I can grasp that pretty easily. Watching Walter White’s decent into hell just feels more plausible.
That … hurts. I should see it as a cautionary tale or morality tale, I realize, but all I can do is watch White betray his family and his friends and treat them with increasing disdain and feel bad about it. There are less-angst-inducing ways for me to spend my few TV-watching hours. And I can probably stomach my “banality of evil” allegories much better in a good novel or magazine article.
The funny thing: After I made my Breaking Bad confession on Facebook earlier this week, all sorts of friends came out of the woodwork to agree. Yes, there were a couple of folks who implored me to give it a second chance. Mostly though, I heard from smart folks — people who don’t spend their Sunday nights Tweeting up a storm — that, for various reasons, they too found the show hard to watch. One confessed, even, that the show had given her bad dreams.
We humans can’t always control how we respond to art. Even good art.
But my friends’ confessions made me realize something. Even in its best weeks, Breaking Bad averages under 3 million viewers — less than 1 percent of the population. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good show, or that it’s unimportant. It probably means, however, that I can skip the show without feeling too bad. Breaking Bad is just TV, after all. It’s not a graduation requirement.