the English-speaking world geared up for the finale of Breaking Bad, an interesting little announcement filtered out of the realms of British showbusiness:
the 1980s and 1990s sitcom Birds Of A Feather was about to be recommissioned, shifting from its original home on BBC to ITV. That is all you need to know these days to gauge the difference between American television and British television: one world-beating, the other parochial and embarrassing.
In our multi-channel world of endless choice, many readers might not have seen Breaking Bad, but they will certainly have heard of it - if only from mates obsessing in the office. So here's a brief catch-up: five years ago the American cable channel AMC commissioned what seemed to be a quirky crime drama about a brow-beaten high-school chemistry teacher called Walter White who discovers he has cancer and hooks up with a druggie ex-pupil to cook the drug Crystal Meth to pay for his chemo and leave a little cash behind for his hard-working, solidly middle-class, respectable but put-upon family. Come last Monday, and five seasons in, Walter White had descended to sulphurous depths of evil, his family and everyone who came within his orbit destroyed by his ambition, pride and ruthlessness.
The show ended in a crescendo of fan hysteria, media hype, five-star critical adoration and ratings studio chiefs would open a vein for. Breaking Bad almost single-handedly put Netflix, the online movie and TV streaming channel, on the map. Its finale was a watershed for television and a masterclass is what TV can do as an artform. We are not talking about "who shot JR" here, or Den and Angie getting divorced in the Vic on Christmas Day. We are talking about a type of television that is trying to be almost Dickensian. In fact, forget trying - it is Dickensian. This is writing that takes powerful, believable characters, places them in a contemporary, realistic setting and allows their lives to play out over a long period of time in order to deconstruct our society and entertain and excite the viewer.
Dickens was the master of the long-form novel - he drip-fed his stories out in the pages of Victorian magazines, hooked his public, had the straightforward punters hanging on his every word and the arty critics standing on their hind legs to applaud. (Vince Gilligan - Breaking Bad's creator - is a modern-day Dickens, even down to his sharp little beard and moustache.) And, of course, once Dickens had told his story in the pages of magazines such as Household Words, he then brought out the complete novel - often in time for Christmas. Gilligan is releasing the complete box set of Breaking Bad at the end of November. Most good artists have a great commercial brain.
The literary comparisons, though, get even loftier. What started as a darkly comic crime show deepened into a drama commonly referred to as Shakespearean, with White often compared to Macbeth. The Shakespearean analogy is only a little overblown - because in terms of what Western culture is producing at the moment Breaking Bad is among the very best. The novel may still be the pinnacle of that culture - but a show like Breaking Bad comes thrillingly close to challenging its supremacy. If even 20% of television was like Breaking Bad then - God forbid - the novel might have to step into second place among the art forms which best express and analyse the spirit of the age.
Breaking Bad is the high point of a decade-long march by US programme makers which threatens to elevate television to real art, not just in terms of storytelling, but in its capacity to fulfil art's most fundamental role: to eviscerate the society from which it emanated. It began with The Sopranos. Then came The Wire, Man Men and a slew of other long-form TV serials which left nearly everyone - aside from a few fearlessly smart Scandinavian shows such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge - looking hopelessly amateur in their wake. Britain's got talent shows. This country's best attempts at novelesque TV - Utopia on Channel 4, The Fall on BBC 2 - start out with promise and stagger to a disappointing, ill-thought-out, almost pointless halt (or sometimes even worse, a hastily cobbled together second series). The rest - and yes, I do mean Luther - is a joke.
So what happened to put British television on the back foot? The answer can be found by posing another question: what happened to the British novel? America still embraces new, difficult, dangerous literary voices. Across the Atlantic, publishers are more brave, and sadly, more clever. In Britain it is different: the UK's size means that the power of London publishing acts like a black hole, pulling everything into its orbit. London publishing, though, is almost uniformly safe, cosy, middle-class; it is the home of the novel by consensus - a consensus established in the shadow of the public school and the trust fund. Only in the conference rooms of London publishing houses could Hilary Mantel and Sebastian Faulks ever be considered edgy.
Beyond the M25 things are different, though. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the countries where you will find the brave and the different publishing houses - the risk-takers. If you need a reminder of this huge cultural difference recall this: Glasgow's James Kelman, one of the best writers the British isles has produced, won the Booker Prize for his distinctly un-middle-class novel How Late It Was, How Late in 1994. Three members of the London literary commentariat - all products of public schools and Oxbridge - took particular exception to the win. Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Simon Jenkins and Kingsley Amis all trashed it variously as "crap", "literary vandalism" and "lower deck". If Kelman has an American literary cousin, it is Hubert Selby Jnr. Before his death, Selby Jnr, who wrote Last Exit To Brooklyn, was idolised as a transgressive genius in America. Kelman gets the order of the boot here.
ass is also holding back British television. America is a not a class-free society: if you are born in a trailer park, you'll probably end up dying there, even though you might believe you can make it all the way to the country club. However, it is not a class-conscious society, except in the land of the latter-day Gatsbys and the Hamptons' super-rich.
Americans are, in their heads at least, all middle class, all part of the same working society. And so, the Americans give us classless works such as The Wire and Breaking Bad, while we give them Downton Abbey and Doctor Who. Look at this year's US Emmy and UK Bafta winners. They have Breaking Bad, The Big Bang Theory, American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire; we have Made In Chelsea and The Great British Bake Off. The best of the Baftas went to Game Of Thrones - made by the US TV giant HBO. Nobody cooks blue meth on British TV.
Downton Abbey is a particularly insidious form of class warfare. My grandmother, who worked as a housemaid in the 1920s and 1930s, adored Downton Abbey's 1970s predecessor Upstairs Downstairs because it carved up the rich and batted for the below-stairs underdog at every turn. Downton Abbey, by contrast, lauds the humble servant, happy in their station, knowing that their more intelligent, better-dressed, better-looking superiors can safely take all decisions for them. My grandmother was also an old Irish Republican and a communist, so if she were alive today I think she'd have called for a gun to put a bullet through the telly every time the show by Julian Fellowes - Baron Fellowes of West Stafford - appeared.
I've worked in London TV and like most of the creative industries down there it is dominated by the spirit of the public school; by executives who often know little of the real world. A good few years ago I was having lunch with a TV executive, trying to find a home for a documentary I wanted to make about the effect of extreme internet pornography on the minds of young men (ironically, I watched a similar documentary last week, showing how British TV endlessly regurgitates itself). Over drinks, he said to me: "When I was about 13 I had my first sight of porn - it was in my school dorm and the lad in the bed next to me passed me a mag." The TV exec's words confirmed the distance between his life, and the lives of the people I wanted to film and the viewers I wanted to tell a story.
The likes of Vince Gilligan and Sopranos creator David Chase are successful because they have lived in the real world; they went to real schools, lived real lives, they are real people ... and that is why they give us such depth and truth in storytelling and character. We love what they do because they know us. Breaking Bad isn't just a spur-of-the moment fad which bloomed this summer and will be forgotten about in a month or two. Great art lives on because people talk about it, because it becomes embedded in culture and because people interpret it in many different ways as they start to co-opt it to fit their own worldview. So, there are Beijing bloggers today dissecting the show and musing that it proves the degeneracy of America. Walter White breaks bad because he reckons he is poor. To the eyes of a member of the Chinese middle class, White is unimaginably wealthy: his is a two-car family living in a detached villa with a pool. As one Chinese blogger wrote: "He [White] is not just rejecting his fate, but also rejecting the evils of the capitalist system … after I finished watching this show, I was unsettled for a while, until I opened my copy of Only Socialism Can Save America and thought for a long, long time."
Meanwhile, over in the States, the hard-right journalist, Ann Coulter uses Breaking Bad to support her fundamentalist Christian agenda. The show, while morally ambivalent throughout - often putting the viewer in the position of emotionally supporting the most villainous characters - did end with what some critics saw as a rather black-and-white morality, with evil punished, good rewarded and those in need of redemption redeemed.
think that's a little too blunt - the work was deeply, gleefully amoral throughout, and Gilligan did no more than any good writer tries to do, be they Shakespeare or a soap scripter: he gave the viewer the end that they need, rather than the one they want.
If all this sounds a little class-conscious, so be it. Art speaks to the world in an attempt to change it: if it doesn't, it isn't art. Back in the class-conscious 1950s (long before I was born) and 1970s (when I was a young boy), lots of men and women from working-class backgrounds, but with very clever brains in their heads, were making the kind of art, particularly TV, that set Britain apart from the technicolour pap that the rest of the world was pumping out.
As a teenager growing up in the 1980s during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, one powerful series of plays - on Play For Today, remember that? - put my country on the operating table and dissected it for all the world to see. The Billy Plays, starring a young Kenneth Branagh, were written by a talented young writer called Graham Reid. He grew up in working-class Belfast, joined the army aged 15 and in his early twenties, went to Queen's University, became a teacher and then decided he had to be a writer - because he believed he could do it and was destined for it. His plays were like a kick to Northern Ireland's collective head.
eaking Bad is a kick to the collective head of America, and by extension most of the Western world. However, as with all good art, the audience hasn't yet realised how subversive and dangerous it is. As those Chinese bloggers pointed out, Breaking Bad says something very dark about American capitalism: it says it will eat you up and spit you out, it will destroy you; it will make you a monster.
It also says something horrible and powerful about both the contemporary family and the state of modern masculinity: Walter is on the ultimate male power trip; his fragile, dangerous male sense of self has been beaten down by what he sees as humiliations of enormous proportions - being a failure in the bedroom, being poorer than some of his students - and he will do anything to even the score against a world which he believes wronged him at every turn. Walter White is truly a tragic character - because he is his own nemesis and the agent of his own ruin - and like all tragic characters he is also a fool. He may be smart, but he doesn't see the truth about himself until it is too late.
If Breaking Bad had a catchphrase, which it doesn't despite the desperation of its more geeky fans, then it would be Walter White's famous quote: "I am the danger." The motto of the simple suburbanite turned murderous drug lord. White is right - he really is the danger; and this show is the danger too - to the happy daft consensus of American life and to the lazy dying middle-class thing that is called British television.
Neil Mackay is the Sunday Herald's head of news and the author of All The Little Guns Went Bang Bang (Freight Books, £8.99)
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