Much has been written about the so-called “Water Cooler” shows, the television programs that everybody’s talking about, that everyone wants to be caught up so that they can be a part of the conversation around the metaphorical water cooler in the break room at work (more commonly known today as “The Internet”). Twin Peaks is often cited as one of the first big examples of this. More recently, shows like Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad have also dominated the conversation, with GIF-sets and spoilers and thinkpieces exploding all across the internet. Let’s stop for a moment and take a look at those titles again: do you notice anything in common between them? For the most part, it’s the fantastical, the speculative and science fictional shows that get people talking these days. And it’s not just your traditional sci-fi/fantasy fans (read: people like you and me) who are into it, either. I’m certainly not the first to notice this zeitgeist of mainstream acceptance for the genre stories that we’ve all been vouching for for years.
And then there’s this chemistry teacher who makes himself overlord of a meth empire—with a distinct lack of robots, swords, or other genre weirdness. But we talk about it just the same. But why don’t we think about Breaking Bad as a genre story?
Sure, there is an undeserved stigma around “genre stories” for many people, which is why they say, “Oh, well, it’s just a really good story with good characters that happens to have zombies/robots/time travel/dragons/incest/etc,” and if we’re already hesitant to refer to The Walking Dead as a “genre” story, then why would we heartlessly slap that same label on Breaking Bad? But on the other side of the argument, why don’t we talk about Breaking Bad on websites or fan communities like this one, in the same context as we refer to Game of Thrones? It’s even got the same meme-prowess as the rest of those shows, judging by my Tumblr and Facebook feeds.
But if “science fiction” is fiction that deals in part with the consequences of science, wouldn’t a high school chemistry teacher applying his knowledge to make special blue super drugs technically qualify? Don’t forget that time when (**spoilers**) Walt used fulminated mercury disguised as meth to blow up Tuco’s base, or when he poisoned Brock with the lily of the valley plant because of its similar but less-fatal effects to ricin in order to manipulate Jesse (**end spoilers**). That’s practically hard science fiction right there. Some of you might argue that those elements of hard sci-fi aren’t so central to the story of Breaking Bad, but I would say that they help create and inform the stakes of the world, just like the zombies on The Walking Dead. Walter’s chemistry aptitude and ability to make the best meth ever is part of what got him into this situation, just like zombies got Rick and company into theirs. Or consider the conspiratorial depths of a meth empire being run through a million subdivided shell companies of a fast food chain owned by a German conglomerate, which is something straight out of an espionage or spy story. And let’s not forget the magnets!
As for those of you who insist that Breaking Bad has more in common with crime dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire, I would remind you that crime stories share a common history with science fiction and fantasy. These are all genres with strong roots in pulp magazines, dime novels, and penny dreadfuls—stories that were once relegated to the status of mass market escapist junk. Many writers have crossed the lines between these genres as well, from Isaac Asimov to Duane Swierczynski. And you can’t tell me that there’s not at least something science fictional about the superhuman Sherlock Holmes (especially in the modern BBC series). Even Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan got his television start working on The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen.
The “genre fiction” label was created to separate the perceived “cheap thrills” from so-called “literary stories,” but these lines have grown increasingly blurred over time. But we still tend to draw more lines within the “genres” themselves. I suspect that those of us who are fans of science fiction and fantasy probably enjoy Breaking Bad for many of the same reasons—it’s a heightened reality that seems fantastical but remains true to life at the heart of it, perhaps even moreso because of its heightened qualities, which offers us a new way of looking at familiar situations. If its meme-ification is any indication, Breaking Bad is a genre story that combines elements of hard science fiction, crime fiction, and espionage/spy fiction into a captivating modern drama. And maybe if we stake our claim on it as a genre story, it’ll help break down those arbitrary walls and genre prejudices.
(Also, Mike Ehrmantraut? Definitely a superhero. And Gus is his Two-Face)
So what do you think—does (or should) Breaking Bad qualify as genre fiction, and should we talk about it in these same contexts and communities? Why or why not?
Thom Dunn is the one who is a Boston-based writer / musician / homebrewer / new media artist, and 2013 graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD. He enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve robots). He firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.