How to explain the phenomenon of Breaking Bad? I pondered this as we waited for One Man Breaking Bad to begin last night in a sold-out, packed Liverpool Philharmonic.
The fact that Miles Allen, a Los Angeles-based actor and comedian could fill the place with his 80-minute précis of five seasons of a series never shown on UK television is quite something. Asking for a show of hands at the start, Allen confirmed that all but a handful of the audience had seen the entire series. Indeed, there would be no point in attending if you hadn’t.
But why was Breaking Bad so popular, so addictive? We spent several weeks last spring gripped by the show, watching two or even three episodes at a time. Why should we keep returning to the story of a high-school chemistry teacher who sets out on an unlikely career as a drug baron, transmogrifying into the terrifying figure of Heisenberg?
Was it that the transformation of normal, middle-class family guy Walter White into an immoral anti-hero was skilfully delineated in Vince Gilligan’s scripts as driven by factors that those of similar social circumstances could readily understand (even if we assure ourselves that we would we would never have followed the same path)? While Tony Soprano (the subject of a similar psychological study) is already a mobster when we first meet him, Walter White turns into a monster before our very eyes.
Walt is a respectable chemistry teacher (though, in 21st-century America, he apparently needs a second job at a car-wash to make ends meet). Diagnosed, as the series begins, with terminal lung cancer, his male, white-collar fear is less of his own death, but of how he will provide for his family after the medical bills have been paid. (There was a funny, though potentially worrying, moment in Allen’s comic routine last night when he suggested how a British-made Breaking Bad might have played out: You need cancer treatment? The NHS will pay!)
A chance encounter with a former student, Jesse Pinkman – small-time meth cook and wastrel – sets Walt’s unlikely career as a drug baron in motion. At last night’s show it was clear who was the favourite character for both the audience and Allen – Jesse, of course. With minimal props or visuals, Allen nails impressions of pretty much every character in the series and recreates all the main plot points from the drama. Cleverly, Allen lampoons each character by picking up on a catch-phrase or personality trait. In the case of Jesse Pinkman, who serves as the narrator, it’s his constant refrain of ‘bitch!’
The audience’s soft spot for Jesse is interesting. While Walt grows increasingly less sympathetic, Jesse becomes a more complex character, even as he, too, shifts from being the loutish minor criminal and trial to his parents that he is when we first meet him, to being a murderer, too:
He’s killed a man, he’s witnessed the murder of a child and the near death of another. He’s had friends die. He’s had the love of his recovering life die. Jesse has, in short, suffered all the soul-crushing, life-sucking depression that Walt seems to dance over. And as we watch Jesse’s complete inability to deal with the riches that have come his way, as we watch him and know that he’d give anything to wish it all away, it’s clear that series creator Vince Gilligan is using him as the anti-Walt.
– Tim Goodman
As Walt says in the pilot episode, chemistry is the study of change, and this drama studies change in both its main characters. With his chemical skills, Walt is able to become Heisenberg, and cook some of the purest methamphetamine the world has ever known . . . and to lose his own purity as a human being in the process.
At the start of his journey, Walt regards himself as a pathetic failure: scraping by working for low pay, in debt, and gaining little respect in the classroom. Walt’s initial justification for moving into meth manufacturing is that he wants to leave his family financially secure, but that excuse soon begins to wear thin. He begins to take pride in his professional standards as a meth cook, and to relish his terrifying power in confrontations with those who attempt to muscle in on his business.
Allen describes his show, currently touring the UK, as a ‘love letter for all the fans who lived through the blood, meth and tears of the greatest television show ever made’. Even allowing for Allen’s wit and boundless energy and enthusiasm, the real appeal of this show isn’t its comedy but its subject matter. I imagine we had all come for the chance to relive the TV series that became totally obsessive – and have a laugh at the same time.
Miles Allen drives relentlessly through BB‘s five seasons, spending less than 20 minutes on each. As well as acting out some crucial scenes, he also provides a satirical commentary characters and aspects of the series. So, when his doctor tells Walt that he’s surprised at how well he’s coping with the news of his terminal cancer, Allen shoots back, in a near-perfect Bryan Cranston imitation: ‘Yes, my wife is a bitch and I’d rather die.’
Indeed, Allen is at his most merciless in his parody of Walt’s wife, Skylar. Roughly adorning himself in a blonde wig, he gets her intonation just right. His impressions of Walt as Heisenberg, brother-in-law Hank Schrader and Saul Goodman are all great, but it’s his take on Walt Junior, that is most memorable and get the most laughs. Walt’s son, who suffers from cerebral palsy in the series, is lampooned mercilessly, chiefly for being driven only by the need to secure a good breakfast. (It’s only now that I realise that nearly every scene that featured Walt Jnr was at the family breakfast bar.)
Miles Allen is nothing if not energetic as a performer, offering some lively dance sequences (‘Calling Saul’, and ‘Die like Jane’, plus a bizarre parody of Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ as sung by Walt Jr). He throws in bonus sketches, such as ‘What if other film and television characters used the word ‘Bitch’ as much as Jesse?’ and ‘What if Bill Cosby played Walter White?’. There was audience participation in the form of a ‘Throwing the Pizza on the Roof’ routine that involved a very willing middle-aged couple from the audience.
One Man Breaking Bad looks like it might be Allen’s big break. He has built a career as an actor and stand-up comedian after moving to Los Angeles after college, aged 22. There, the only steady work he found was as a male nanny. One Man Breaking Bad eventually grew out of a YouTube video that went viral in which Allen performed his Breaking Bad impressions while dressed as a homeless man. A private joke between a few of his friends, it quickly attracted more than a million views.
The video was spotted by a theatre producer in Australia who suggested the idea of compressing the entire series of Breaking Bad into an hour? The resultant show was a huge hit at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival before transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer.
One Man Breaking Bad is a great show, riotously funny, and a world away from the darkness of the TV series. I sensed that everyone in the packed Philharmonic last night had thoroughly enjoyed Allen’s reminders of a TV show that had been a gruelling and gripping experience to watch.
Breaking Bad was distinctive because we always knew where its road would end. We knew that right from the start, in the way that the first audiences of Shakespeare’s tragedies knew what lay in store for Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. But these days we like to think that the hero, even if he is an anti-hero, makes it through.
– Erica Wagner
- The capitalist nightmare at the heart of Breaking Bad: essay by Erica Wagner (New Statesman)