Why Breaking Bad is way better than Downton Abbey: four reasons

Cooking up a storm – Jesse and Walter. Photos: AMC, Ben Leuner/AMC

It’s on the cover of Radio Times, a whole edition of the Daily Mail‘s Weekend magazine was devoted to it and the trailers are all over the internet. The fanfare for series three of ITV1’s Downton Abbey is loud and unavoidable. And America is not immune, with the period drama being the only British contender in next Sunday’s Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series.

It’s so Bad, it’s great
But also in contention is a darker, funnier, more unpleasant and far superior series that is a mystery to most British viewers – Breaking Bad. Now in its fifth series in the US, this crime saga has only had a couple of bouts of exposure when series one and two were shown on FXUK and 5USA, and then hastily dropped.

And why not? It’s a show about a drab chemistry teacher played by Bryan Cranston from family comedy Malcolm in the Middle. He lives in an ugly part of America and is diagnosed with lung cancer. He then turns to crime to provide for his family by illegally producing methamphetamine with an irritating former student of his (Aaron Paul).

‘Worst idea for a show’
The studio honcho to whom the show was pitched described it as ‘the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life’.

Thankfully, he backed it anyway and AMC, who make series such as Mad Men and The Walking Dead, started producing it. Breaking Bad is far more original and brilliant than anything being made in the UK – Downton Abbey included – and has gone on to win 26 television awards, including six Emmys already. Here are the reasons why it’s in the same class as The Wire and The Sopranos.

And the good news for UK viewers is that Netflix is showing it and it’s available from Lovefilm.

Despite all the hardware, Hank is a nice guy

1 Brilliant drama
Breaking Bad is gimmick-free – it’s not high-concept, big budget or full of desperate plot twists. It is simply an engrossing drama about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The characters resonate with viewers because there is a level of truthfulness and reality about them. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) goes on a journey into darkness with initially good – if not legal – intentions. Diagnosed with cancer, the poorly paid chemistry teacher tries to leave some financial provision for pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), who has cerebal palsy, by producing high-grade meth. The characters often surprise us. Apart from everyman-turned-mobster Walter, there’s his gormless accomplice Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), whom we eventually see is emotionally damaged but probably more decent than Walter. There’s Walter’s brother-in-law, macho DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), whom we come to admire as a brave, tender soul. And there are so many fine scenes, such as Walter inappropriately trying to downplay the seriousness of an airliner crash that he’s caused before dismayed teachers and pupils at his traumatised school. It’s a morally complex saga, with good people sliding into bad actions through misguided loyalty and a thirst for survival. Death, birth, tenderness, tragedy, wit – it’s got everything.

2 Visually superb

Business is booming – the Breaking Bad cast

It begins with a man – Walter – in his underpants, yelling and hurtling through the desert in an RV. It’s a typically off-kilter scene in a narrative that flashes back and forwards and makes for a dazzling narrative. Surreal visual touches – a one-eyed plush toy floating in Walter’s pool for several episodes, men crawling along the ground to a shrine – constantly throw the audience off-balance, and some are like premonitions, only explained weeks after initially cropping up. The setting of bland, wide-open Alberquerque, New Mexico, with its crappy malls and fast-food outlets, adds to disorienting, dreamlike quality of the series.

In the dark, but not for long – Skyler

3 Humour amid the darkness
Breaking Bad can induce nervous giggles – such as during farcical episode 8, series 2 when Badger almost incriminates the wrong bald guy on the park bench while hoodwinking the DEA – or horrified guffaws – such as the moment when addict Spooge has a monumentally heavy ATM machine that he’s stolen and been trying to open, tipped onto his head by his angry girlfriend. Then there’s shyster lawyer Saul Goodman, who, as played by Bob Odenkirk will forever define the species. His naked self-interest and cynical legal scams are beautifully played. He’s the kind of guy who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy’, and becomes a great asset to Walter. And when he dumps Jesse as a partner because Walter has re-entered the game, he just says, ‘That’s the way of the world, kid. Go with the winner.’

4 Great acting

Jesse and Walter are now watched over by Fring (Giancarlo Esposito)

Having sold the unlikely prospect of a series about a chemistry teacher with lung cancer to the studio, creator Vince Gilligan (who produced The X Files) then had to convince them that Bryan Cranston – the guy from that family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle – could take the lead in this dark, violent drama. His powers of persuasion are clearly awesome, but were completely vindicated by the shifty-eyed, powerful presence of Cranston. But he’s not alone here as a terrific actor. In the tremendous episode One Minute in series three, Aaron Paul has a blistering scene in hospital when he splutters out how much he hates Walter. But this episode then tops it with a heartrending scene between Hank and his wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), in which macho Hank apologies for not being the tough guy he always thought he was. And when it comes to menacing,  Raymond Cruz as drugged-up cartel psycho Tuco – oh my god, just don’t go there!

Breaking Bad is not a show for people who want to goggle at pretty costumes and luscious settings. It’s original, artfully directed on 35mm film, edgy and horribly violent at times.

It’s also the best drama on television right now – bar none.

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  1. Couldn’t agree more! Breaking Bad is TV at its best.

    Downton Abbey’s a glorified soap (with nice frocks)…

  2. I devoured the first 4 seasons this summer while in the US and seriously can’t believe how brilliant it is!

  3. Just wait until you catch the stone-cold opener of Season 5. So many viewing treats await you. Remember last year when I was trying to convince you to start watching BB? Glad you love it so, sir.

  4. Thanks for the tip! Season 5 sounds a bit special…

  5. For some reason they’re breaking up Season 5 into two parts, but I have no doubt the second half will be as amazing and terrifying as the first half. Some new characters are introduced, some old characters are…um…taken care of, and all of it’s brilliant. I agree with you, Robin. Best show on TV by far.

  6. You compare a contemporary satire with a historical drama? Does the phrase “apples and oranges” not ring a bell?

    Perhaps you’d find “Two Pints of Lager and a Package of Crisps” much, much better than “Homeland”, as I do.

  7. I won’t argue, Mike. I’m certainly comparing apples and oranges, but only because the gulf between the hoopla over Downton compared to the anonymity of Breaking Bad (in the UK, at least) seems a tad unfair to me.

    Anyway, neither won at the Emmys in the end. Anyone think Homeland deserved it?

  8. Robin, you do realise that the Emmys are, in the words of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the people who invented the award), “part of an image-building and public relations opportunity.” (http://www.emmys.tv/atemmys/history.php) If that indicates anything to you aside from commerce, then I have nothing to add.

    As far as Homeland is concerned, one aspect I always find important in a good television drama is level of quality that leads the viewers to a “willing suspension of disbelief.” With the ludicrous premise of this series (a mentally handicapped woman is accepted by the American CIA as an employee and then embarks on a fanatasy, which may or may not be the result of her condition), I simply find it impossible to suspend disbelief. FWIW, the original Israeli series on which this is based (from what I’ve read) included no secret agents (although the Israelis have, of course, a rather well known version of the CIA), mentally handicapped or not. Apparently, this gimmick was invented to sell more pharmaceuticals in the US.

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