Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, naturally decides that the best way to make sure his family is provided for after he's gone is to begin cooking meth. What, that totally makes as much sense as a suburban housewife selling weed to provide for her family. He teams up with a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman, a junkie meth dealer. He must, of course, keep his criminal ways secret from his family: his wife, Skyler, who suspects something is up but attributes it to the cancer diagnosis; his teenage son, Walter Jr., who is a totally cool kid with cerebral palsy—and his disability never becomes A Thing (the actor has mild CP himself); his sister-in-law, Marie, who is a nosy nurse; and his brother-in-law, Hank, who works for the DEA. Uh. Yeah. Obviously, the constant fear of being caught hangs over our bad-boy main character.
Breaking Bad is the most tense show I have ever seen. Never mind the fact that we're always worrying whether Walt will get caught. That is only one of many, many, many things to worry about. I have never seen a show with so many scenes of sustained tension, minutes and minutes and minutes of nail-biting terror. Walt and Jesse get in over their heads really fast, and they essentially spend the entire series struggling to keep their heads above water in some form or fashion. The drug trade is serious business. And because the tension can be broken in any number of ways—a well-timed phone call, a scientific breakthrough, an unexpected save, and, you know, sometimes people do actually die—you're never quite sure what the outcome will be. By the end of the season three finale, I could barely breathe. Seriously, watching this show is like a master class in how to create suspense.
And the tension is not simply about what will happen but what it will mean for our characters. Walt and Jesse walk the morally grey line—they're not bad people, but they're certainly doing bad things. At least, illegal things. For good reasons? Is that bad? But how far will they go? We're really invested in their moral fiber, and although the show never has any grand speeches about what makes a person good or bad, it's all right there in the story and the characters. What happens when a good man does bad things and decides that maybe he kind of likes it? Can a loser junkie really make something of himself? There is a reason Bryan Cranston has won the Emmy three times and Aaron Paul finally won one of his own. So many scenes rely entirely on reading their faces; they have to portray a multitude of complicated emotions as their characters grow and change.
Breaking Bad also sets itself apart with its cold opens, which are not your traditional television teasers. An unnerving, unexplained series of images. A music video. A television commercial. A flashback. The space before the credits does not necessarily have to do with the events of the episode proper, but it sets the scene. I love how the teasers are like little short films of their very own; even when they do have to do with the story, they feel special, if only because their endings are accompanied by the lovely and perfect Breaking Bad theme, which sets the mood, a mood enhanced by the show's New Mexico cinematography. The show doesn't look like anything else on television; what other show takes place in Albuquerque, of all places? The cinematography doesn't just give us time-lapse shots of the desert, but it gives us POV shots and other stylistic flourishes that add a surreal touch to some scenes.
I would be remiss not to mention that the show is created by Vince Gilligan, of X-Files fame, and given that he wrote the classic "Bad Blood," you'd better believe the show is full of black comedy. You've got to have humor in a show this tense! I also have to mention that because the main character is a chemistry teacher, there is so much SCIENCE!! on this show. Look, kids, science can solve real-life problems!
I could seriously go on and on about how amazing Breaking Bad is, but I don't want to spoil anything, especially because Breaking Bad is particularly impressive in the way that it grows organically over three seasons, never becoming unrecognizable or awkwardly forcing itself back into the status quo. It is telling One Long Story, and events from previous seasons are referenced appropriately and hang over the characters' heads.
In the end, Breaking Bad is a show about people making terrible decisions, frequently out of desperation. Make a good decision: catch up with this show before it returns on July 17.