Some lovely person sat me down recently and showed me the first episode of Breaking Bad, and I swear it was love at first sight. Though I could tell it was to be an emotionally abusive relationship, I was hooked, intrigued and enamoured.
Breaking Bad is about Walter White, a fifty-year-old scientist who has dropped remarkably from his career’s peak, and finds himself in a dead-end job teaching chemistry to high school students and working spare hours at a car wash. He has a growing family to provide for, with a disabled son and a pregnant wife, with his successful and delightfully obnoxious brother- and sister-in-law hovering over them. When he is diagnosed with lung cancer and two years to live, he decides that he has nothing to lose and delves into the production of crystal meth with the help of an ex-student.
Already an interesting premise, to watch this mild-mannered innocent walk head-first into a world few of us have seen the inside of. What exactly will happen in the catalyst created by the good citizen and his terrible but seductive moral decision?
This is the premise of a lot of shows, actually. Weeds follows the story of a newly widowed single mother who begins dealing marijuana to afford her upper middle class lifestyle. Again, a perfectly reasonable character who could be anyone’s smiling neighbour engaging in grossly immoral activities. The same goes for Dexter, on a terrifyingly high level, in which the viewers get inside the story and mind of a compulsive serial killer.
Secret Diary of a Callgirl is exactly what it claims to be, Hung follows a man who becomes a male prostitute… the list goes on. Drug dealing and murder are, of course, illegal and hideously immoral in the eyes of our society, and prostitution has its own set of stigmas, especially with the character in question being a man, which is a rare subversion that causes all eyebrows within a 30 metre radius to rise. But if the actions these characters commit are so heinous then why are we so enamoured with their stories? Shouldn’t we as respectable citizens be appalled and repelled by the very suggestion, let alone the prospect of watching the intricacies play out on screen?
Or perhaps it’s just the opposite—humans love a scandal more than anything else, if our gossip culture of magazines and Keeping up with Those Annoying Tanned Ladies reality shows prove anything. There’s a strange sort of titillation in looking into the dark side of life that we generally try to avoid for, you know, fear of going to prison or being ostracised by our peers.
And we can watch them play out from the safety of our own homes, with the corn chips on standby and perhaps a fat affectionate cat on our lap, with all stress and threat evaporated as soon as we hit the off button.
There’s just something fascinating about these kinds of shows, Dexter especially, if I may use that as an example: there are millions of murder mysteries on TV, but how often do we get to see them from the murderer’s point of view? Have we all not wondered, at some low and ponderous point in our lives, what it would be like to kill a person? We get to see Dexter play out this seldom explored dance, and come to understand him in a twisted sort of way.
People no doubt wonder what goes on in the business of drug dealing too, but have been too afraid to ask or Google it for fear of suspicious glances and the opportunity to have a spectacularly dodgy browser history. But hey, now their curiosity can be sated by simply turning on the television set!
There’s also the intriguing moral battle that goes on within the hearts and minds of viewers: are these characters bad people for doing bad things? Is Dexter evil because he kills people compulsively, or is he some sort of dark hero because he only murders those who have done horrible things? Are Nancy and Walter really that bad if they’re only delving into drug manufacture to protect and provide for their families? It probes the ancient question of what defines good and evil, and if they do even exist.
And soon enough we find ourselves doing things the media tells us are terrible: sympathising with drug dealers and murderers. We get a sick sort of satisfaction from watching Dexter exact his revenge on twisted criminals, and feel relief when Walter evades the clutches of the police. This goes against the traditional lessons taught in our society, that justice is right and good and must be upheld. Yet here we are, great droves of us, rooting for criminals. Fictional ones, but criminals nonetheless.
As I have said before, everyone loves a villain, and anti-heroes even moreso. They are interesting characters with extra layers and conflicts added to them, and the opportunity for some dark-natured character development as they achieve success in their chosen immoral field and spiral downwards. It creates a catalyst for engaging plot points, exploring their relationship with the children and partners they were trying to protect as they keep their criminal business a secret, the physical and psychological impacts of doing such things as drug traffic and murder, and of course the opportunity to keep the audience on the edge of their seats as they wonder how in the world it’s all going to end for them.
In doing this, though, are we encouraging people to go out and try their hand at the crimes glamorised by shows like Weeds? It’s a tricky balance to strike, I imagine, as a writer of a series like these. To what point do you make your characters sympathetic and likeable, at the same time not promoting what they are doing as a good thing? I mean, let it never be said that people are gullible enough to rush into the crystal meth business just because they saw it on TV, but the issue remains.
The crimes in question are often portrayed as shady and dangerous, while at the same time providing an exciting and intriguing backdrop for a series. The key, I think, is in the characters: over the course of the story, a clever set of writers will show the ramifications on relationships and emotional stability. Even in the promotional material, look at the difference between Walter in season one and season four:
Are these shows glorifying crime? I don’t think so. As sexy as Weeds may be, all they are doing is providing a different viewpoint and an interesting skew of the moral compass usually presented in fictional media, which always makes for intriguing viewing. Shows with complex anti-heroes in complicated situations are guaranteed to pull an audience simply because they stand out from a crowd, even with the irony that they’re becoming steadily more popular.
At the heart of it all, I think it’s just a desire to peer into and examine the lives of people in situations different to ours. And criminal activity provides a perfect base, an area people are fascinated with—just look at the news and the fact that Cops exists—and perturbed by at the same time. Propelling the stories along on the backs of interesting and sympathetic characters gives it a human side not often explored in the media, and another opportunity to observe a world vastly different from the experiences of the average middle class couch-dwelling viewer.