Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Lessons From TV: Breaking Bad

I’m a terrible TV watcher.
By that I mean I never keep up. I hear about shows I’d like to watch from somewhere or other, make note of the night, time and station, and then forget all about it until the day after it airs. I’m always behind. Of course, Netflix and Amazon and On Demand means the actual schedule is largely meaningless; miss it, and you can easily see it almost any time, and sometimes even commercial free.
My wife would tell you I’m a terrible TV watcher because of what I like. Beginning way back with a show called Millennium, which aired on Fox right after The X-Files for a few years, I’ve developed a penchant for dark drama and dark comedy. Millennium, Oz, and then dark comedies like Weeds and Californication (while I’m not sure either of those exactly qualify as comedy, they’re much more humorous than Oz or Millennium). And now I’m hooked on Breaking Bad.
I watched season 1 of Breaking Bad last spring but sort of dropped it over the summer, even though I really liked it. I started season 2 right after vacation. After reading over the AW thread on “Why movies?” I referenced last week, I was watching Breaking Bad and had that ‘ah hah!’ reaction, and I realized I was watching a writing clinic. Sure, TV and movies are vastly different media from books, yet you can still learn from the best, and Breaking Bad may be the best show on television. Here are two areas where Breaking Bad excels:
Characterization. We’re always told to flesh out our characters, make them real, three-dimensional people, with hopes and dreams–and flaws. Our ‘hero’ of Breaking Bad, Walter White, is definitely three-dimensional. He’s a 50-year old high school chemistry teacher who is already working 2 jobs to make ends meet when he finds out he’s got inoperable lung cancer. He’s also got a baby on the way, a 15-year old son with Cerebral Palsy, and a crappy insurance plan. While he expects to be alive when his daughter his born, he knows he’ll likely never see her take her first steps, and will probably not see his son graduate high school. He’s been dealt a shitty hand, so maybe, maybe we can forgive him for his decision to apply his knowledge of chemistry to cooking up the best, most pure methamphetamine the world has ever seen. After all, it’s bad enough he’s going to die; he’s also likely to bankrupt his family in the process. Cooking meth is the avenue to taking care of his family. We may not condone it, but we can certainly feel for the guy.
But, to be honest, Walter is not a guy I like very much, even without the meth. If he were my teacher, I’d probably call him a prick. He’s a stickler for detail. Worst of all, and what is really behind his plight is he’s proud, almost to the point of arrogance. It takes him weeks to reveal his condition to his wife. When he’s offered a high-paying job by an old friend who’s a multi-millionaire, Walter turns it down once he finds out his wife told his friend about his cancer, and he compounds this by refusing to let his friend pay—no strings attached—for his treatment. Walter will not accept charity.
And when it comes to dealing with his partner, underachieving former student, Jesse Pinkman, we see even more of Walter’s bad side. Walter is selfish: he demands that everything happen on histerms, at his convenience. He shows, initially, little concern for anything but himself, and he’s pigheaded to boot. There’s Walter’s way of doing things, and then there’s the wrong way. These things make Walter a complex character. Quite frankly, he’s difficult to like, and difficult to root for, yet I sympathize with his plight, and I feel badly for him when his marriage starts to crumble, even though he’s the architect of his own demise.
Breaking Bad also excels at showing, not telling. Now, this may seem odd, the notion of a TV show telling, as opposed to showing, but they do, on a regular basis. Whether it’s a lab technician on CSI or Law & Order breaking in with an “As you know, Bob…” moment, or an ADA jumping in to explain a point of law that the characters might be expected to know, programs ‘tell’ like this on a regular basis. On shows with highly technical things happening, it is necessary so that viewers can understand what’s happening, but it’s sometimes used as a shortcut to characterization or to reveal backstory as well.
Breaking Bad does precious little of this. We learn about Walter and Jesse and the others in how they react to the other characters, and the situations they get themselves into. We see how Walter reacts to the job offer from his friend; we see him berating and insulting Jesse for mistakes that are at least partly Walter’s fault, because Walter doesn’t communicate very well. We see Walter bemoaning to his money-laundering lawyer the fact that he’s got a half-million dollars in cash that he can’t really spend, and we sense that half the problem for Walter is that his family doesn’t know the lengths he’s gone to to earn that money. SPOILER: when he finally tells Skyler what he’s been doing, you know that he wants her to acknowledge that sacrifice he’s made. It’s brilliantly done, not because he says it outright, but because you pick up the subtext. 
Good characters, showing, not telling, these are things we know we need to do in writing, yet every once in a while those lessons just get reinforced somewhere, sometimes in unexpected places. Breaking Bad did it for me. How about you? Any TV or movies that you’ve found provide great lessons in writing?

I just want to add that I’m sending good thoughts out to all you folks on the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Isaac heads your way. I hope it passes quickly and uneventfully.

14 Responses

  1. I know so many people who are obsessed with that show and I've never seen it! This is a great post though! This may seem all girly and silly but I've always loved the writing in Grey's Anatomy because the characters have actually changed and grown over the seasons. They don't just keep bumping up against the same problems again and again without any real resolution or without having learned anything from their experiences. None of the original characters are the same "people" they were when the show began. I love the fact that the main character, Meredith has actually worked out her mommy issues. It's not just season after season of the same crap. She has epiphanies and struggles and holy crap moments. She evolves as a character and I think in a visual medium it's hard to show all of that internal stuff but the show has done it quite well. I was disappointed in this last season's finale because it was a bit of a cop-out and not up to Grey's standards at all but on the whole I love the writing in that show. I think there are plenty of good writing lessons to be learned from TV. That's where all these shows start anyway, with a few writers sitting around hashing the stories out.

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I'm not so sure why this one was so dang hard for me to write. It's not silly and girly to love Grey's Anatomy. My wife likes it quite a bit. I'm not a fan, myself, I just can't quite connect to the characters for some reason, but it's been a popular show.

    I think part of why BB succeeds for me (and possibly Grey's for you) is because they develop like a novel, over time. I enjoy some of the Law & Order shows, but those arrive with characters pretty much fully-realized. Character is important, because if you don't like the people solving the crimes, you won't like the show, but those are much more about the process, not the people. You don't have the same room or the same need for character development in an NCIS or CSI as you do with Grey's or Breaking Bad, I think.

  3. I'm with Lisa! I know so many people love Breaking Bad, but I've never seen it. I'll have to hunt it down sometime. 🙂

    As for a show that provides great lessons in writing, I'd go with Castle.

  4. Aah I've heard that Breaking Bad is really good, my boyfriend has been going on about it for the past few weeks, I'll have to look in to it for sure and look out for these two writerly lessons that you've mentioned. 🙂 I'm not that much into T.V, but I do catch and enjoy a few things… Once Upon a Time was awesome even though I only saw a few episodes, and I am a die-hard Avatar: The Last Airbender fanatic. I really love the characters and plot in A:TLA, it's really well done, for what's considered a kid's show anyway…

  5. You're smart for avoiding TV–too much makes you stoopid. Avatar: excellent. How did you like Korra? I had some issues with it, but it grew on me.

  6. I was really mad at the first episode of Korra, for a very particular reason revolving around a cliffhanger at the end of the original series and a certain airbender child interrupting and preventing the explanation!!!! But overall I loved it 🙂

  7. I haven't watched Breaking Bad, but I love when TV shows teach a lot about writing! And not just because it helps me feel justified in watching them. 🙂

  8. I've heard of that. I'll have to check it out, though if I stick with my usual methods, I'll start in four or five years.

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