"The Mad Men collection at Banana Republic is okay," joked a comedy-writer friend of mine, "but the Breaking Bad collection at TJ Maxx is to die for." A fantastic line, for sure — though I would argue that Banana Republic's Mad Men collection is not, in fact, okay — and one that highlights just how wide a spectrum of sensibility and setting this new wave of critically acclaimed cable television offers us. Over the past half-decade, these two dramas, Mad Men set in the early sixties' high-flying advertising industry and Breaking Bad set on the contemporary New Mexican meth-cooking scene, have together drawn the lion's share of this acclaim. What's more, they've both done it on AMC, the channel whose previous service consisted primarily of Audrey Hepburn movies, served to your great aunt. Sure, maybe you'd expect from them a period series something like Mad Men. But the grittier, more troubling Breaking Bad? How did all involved pull it off?
In the hour-long video above, the astute investigator known as Conan O'Brien leads a panel discussion about the show featuring, among several others, creator Vince Gilligan and star Bryan Cranston. From his web series Serious Jibber-Jabber, on which he's held in-depth conversations with the likes of historian Edmund Morris and statistician Nate Silver, we've learned that Conan can do long-form interviews and get answers to the important questions. Here we have the important question — not least, naturally, to AMC itself — of how Breaking Bad became, in the words of various critics, a "taut exercise in withheld disaster," a "feel-good show about feeling really bad," a "superlatively fresh metaphor for a middle-age crisis" and a "combination of staggering and transfixing weirdness" that "elevates the artistic achievements of the medium," ultimately becoming "one of television's finest dramatic accomplishments." If these words strike you as hyperbolic, watch the compilation just above that profiles the long-term transformation of Bryan Cranston's protagonist Walter White. Then you'll want to watch the series, which ends this summer, and add some words of your own.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.