Why Britain needs its own Breaking Bad

Britain needs better liars. Having lost our tolerance for taking reality straight up, we need a more palatable way to swallow hard truths. And for this, truth sugared by fiction looks like the best option we have left.

In other words, Britain needs its own Breaking Bad, the greatest television drama since The Wire, which begins its final eight episode run this Sunday. Breaking Bad is astonishing: a monumental, darkly witty tale of one man’s godless struggle to mean something in twenty-first century America.

Breaking Bad walks the line where popular entertainment and artistic excellence meet in triumph. It depicts a grimly ironic descent into achievement, as hero Walter White fulfils his potential by becoming a master of criminal savagery.

Breaking Bad is not a documentary account of America’s underbelly like The Wire, but it too tells the truth: first and foremost about the absurd and cruel consequences of America’s war on drugs. This is a show about the all-too-real riches that peddling crystal meth can offer, thanks to prohibition. It also brings into America’s living rooms the prematurely-aged faces of long-term meth users. Meth, a more destructive alternative to cocaine, tragically gained popularity as the drug war made this chemical moonshine a more accessible poison.

More importantly, Breaking Bad tells the truth about people, both our capacity for individual achievement and the horror of power without limit. The drama is Shakespearean: White, a man of tremendous talent, is hunted by an unappeasable sense of his own greatness. Like an addict, he chases after a high – White’s drug of choice is pride justified – only to find himself travelling ever-deeper into hell. Believing there is nothing he cannot do, he discovers the appalling truth that there is nothing he will not do.

For those of us waiting to discover White’s fate, the final octet of episodes will be available in the UK through Netflix. But we need more than this: we need a homegrown equivalent. Britain produces some great television, but I struggle to think of popular, original drama showing our nation its form and pressure.

Someone needs to make us take a hard look in the mirror. Even as our economy staggers away from recession, it remains weighed down by debt and tangled in EU red tape. The economic desperation in some parts of this country needs a modern Dickens to bring it to our attention – like the poverty-on-sea in some coastal towns, where a sense of hopelessness is besieging whole communities. On the Welsh coast at Rhyl, up to two-thirds of working-age people are unemployed, according to a new report from the Centre for Social Justice.

As our increasingly indistinguishable political class works to limit the freedom of the press, and the enforcement of politically correct speech codes makes bigger headlines than serious arguments about policy, our space to discuss the issues that matter is shrinking. So much is off limits that there is little sensible left to say. Fiction that lies but tells us the truth is one of the few avenues left. Who will write Britain’s Breaking Bad?

First published: City A.M., 9/8/13

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Filed under Film, Human nature, Literature

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