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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Spooks final series

Dimitri, Ruth, Harry, Calum and Erin. Pics: BBC/Kudos

Rating ★★★½

BBC1, Sundays, 9pm

Story: Harry’s dismissal is delayed and he is quickly sent back to the Grid by the Home Secretary. Old secrets have resurfaced after Max Witt, a retired spy and colleague from Harry’s days in Berlin during the Cold War, is murdered. As Russia and Britain move towards repairing their relations, with Ilya Gavrik, Harry’s former KGB counterpart, and his wife, Elena, flying to London, Harry faces renewed threats and the exposure of his own past.

MI5’s spooks met their match on Sunday night. The chambermaids and toffs of ITV1’s Downton Abbey succeeded where the spies of Russia and China failed in giving Sir Harry Pearce’s team a drubbing, hitting 9.3 million viewers to Spooks‘ 4.6 million.

So the Beeb’s intention of giving the 10th and final series of Spooks a rousing send-off fell flat. Going head-to-head with Julian Fellowe’s much adored period drama on a Sunday night when Downton also won four Emmys in the US was rash of the BBC.

Which is a shame because Spooks kicked off with a pretty decent episode. Sir Harry Pearce finished the last series with the words ‘start preparing for life after MI5’ ringing in his ears. But the inquisition into his conduct was abruptly stalled by the Home Secretary, who needed Harry back at the Grid. As Ruth says, ‘Someone jammed the guillotine.’

Lara Pulver as Erin Watts
Gorgeous Lucas North having pitched himself out of the show at the end of the last series, there are now new faces on the team. Lara Pulver plays Erin Watts, a laughably young and glam acting head of Section D in Harry’s absence (plausibility went of the series years ago, so this probably doesn’t matter). Further lowering the section’s aggregate age is new IT supremo Calum, who thinks Harry is well past his sell-by date.

There is the usual obsession with gadgetry, with iPads now de rigueur among the thrusting young agents, and reliance on new gizmos such as a scanner that identifies someone from the way he walks.

Love stalled – Elena and Harry

The backdrop to the episode was Russia and Britain attempting to repair their damaged relations, with Harry having to reluctantly chum up with former enemies. These come in the form of Ilya Gavrik, Harry’s former KGB counterpart, who is in London with his wife, Elena, and son Sasha.

Stalking assassin
Despite all the tech-jargon and serious faces, there are still nice flashes of humour. Erin is the latest to barge into Harry’s office without knocking (the series’ oldest running joke), and when someone asks Harry if he enjoyed his gardening leave, he replied, ‘For one particularly dark moment I considered gardening.’

But there was a generous helping of the Spooks speciality – suspense. The scenes when an unknown assassin was stalking a diplomatic reception were as expertly executed as loyal Spooks watchers would expect.

Happy ending for Harry and Ruth?
This final series is going to be all about Harry, his naughty past with Gavrik’s wife, Elena, and his relationship with Ruth. Theirs is a love that dare not speak its name, the stoical couple at times looking as though they’re in their own version of Brief Encounter.

Will it be a happy send-off for the long-suffering pair who are all too obsessed with public duty? That would surely cheer the show’s devoted fans and help them to forget that Spooks has been totally eclipsed in the ratings by Downton Abbey.

Cast: Lara Pulver Erin Watts, Geoffrey Streatfeild Calum Reed, Peter Firth Harry Pearce, Nicola Walker Ruth Evershed, Giles Havergal Max Witt, Jonathan Hyde Ilya Gavrik, Simon Russell Beale Home Secretary Towers, Alice Krige Elena Gavrik, Tom Weston-Jones Sasha Gavrik

10 reasons why we’ll miss Spooks

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