Wed
Sep 4 2013 11:00am

“I Am The One Who” Thinks Breaking Bad Counts As Genre Fiction

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.

17 comments
wilbert
1. wilbert
wow, you took 4 seasons to figure this out ? Wasnt it obvious since the first episode ? It was created by the former writer of the X files and movies like Hancock
John Thompson
2. Fuzzy_Dunlop
Most definetly. BrBa lines up with genre fiction very well. Heisenberg is a super villain his super power is lieing. He use's science for his own evil purposes. Some of the characters would not be out of place in a Dick Tracy strip (Mike, Gus, the cousins, SAUL). The show is filled with pulpy goodness throughout. While the early seasons where more grounded the further that Walt recedes and Heisenberg asserts himself, the show gets more and more pulpy.

The show is closer to Twin Peaks then it is to The Wire. While both BrBa and The Wire deal with our societies moral decay. They each approach it very differently and doesn't the best genre fiction deal with exactly that.

I have been wondering why Tor.com didn't cover it more often. So get on that rewatch tor, this show is tailor made for you all.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
How are we defining 'genre' fiction? I mean, everything has a genre, right? What would non-genre fiction be? So I'm never quite sure what this means - people seem to use it interchangeably with speculative fiction (sci fi, fantasy, horror). And even that is kind of a blurry term, because even things with no fantastical or sci-fi elements might be 'speculative' in that they could be some kind of alternative history or historical drama. I guess ANY kind of fiction is speculative, really :)

Ive never even seen Breaking Bad so I might be a tad off base (either in my understanding of the show, or what genre fiction actually means), but if we ARE defining genre fiction to mean primarily sci fi/fantasy/horror, I don't think it qualifies just because it's good and interesting or tackles deeper issues. As much as we would like to claim all of it!

But...if it IS genre fiction, then I move that Veronica Mars should be genre fiction and also get a rewatch ;)
wilbert
4. RobertX
I have to agree with Lisamarie. If you are defining "genre fiction" to mean scifi/fantasy then the answer is 100% no it is not.
Beccy Higman
5. Jazzlet
Errr, I do not think you can reasonably define genre fiction "
to mean primarily sci fi/fantasy/horror". The definitions I have seen and the way I have normally seen it used would include romance, crime, thrillers, westerns, all the cross-overs between these genres and probably more that I am forgetting as well as those mentioned
.
wilbert
6. ilgiallomondadori
It certainly is genre fiction, but it is not science fiction/fantasy/horror. It is crime fiction, with strong elements of western fiction. Using science does not make something hard science fiction in any way at all. It makes it well researched, and well thought out.
Theresa DeLucci
7. theresa_delucci
Believe me, if the majority of people considered Breaking Bad genre TV, I'd have been all over the episode reviews! It does have definite cross genre appeal -- Walter is a science nerd. His lab assistant Gale was a full-blown nerd. Who did kareoke to a song about David Bowie's Major Tom. It would be perfect for Tor.com. Except the overarching reality of Breaking Bad is distinctly set in the here and now, despite some of the pulp overtones. (Mike is a goddamned superhero. The Cousins were almost supernatural in their depecition.) But it's not an alternate reality of some kind. There's nothing supernatural to it, like with Twin Peaks.

Is Hannibal a genre show because Will Graham's empathy is so unnatural and Bryan Fuller is at the helm? And a zillion SuperWhoLock fans create fanfiction for it? Is Deadwood a genre show because it is really Shakespeare in Western disguise, full of monologues to the ether and the meta usuage of Garrett Dillahunt in two different roles -- before he played the Terminator? Is Dexter a genre show because Dexter has a Head-Six, his dead father Harry, like Gaius Baltar on BSG? What about Spartacus, a historical fiction staged in a graphic (very graphic!) novel form.

All these shows (namely BrBa, Hannibal, and Deadwood) are "of" a genre, but "genre" as a term in the science fiction community = sf/f.

So I don't think of these as genre shows, but shows that for whatever reason, have inspired rabid fanbases that are most tradionally seen in the SF community. Sometimes there's crossover audiences, sometimes not.
wilbert
8. TFB
I think there's a fine, blurred line between good genre fiction and good literary fiction, but I've always thought it was plot driven versus character driven. In plot driven (genre) stories, characters' actions are reactions to outside forces, such as the zombies in Walking Dead, or the murder of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, while in character driven (literary) stories, the main character (or characters) are the sole creators of the action, or plot.

Also - in plot driven stories, there are certain genre tropes we expect to see. In Walking Dead it's zombie action and gore, in Twin Peaks it's the investigation and police procedural.

As I said, these lines can become blurred. Probably the greatest example of this blurred line between genre and literary fiction is The Great Gatsby. The plot is basically a pulp story with all the usual tropes - the femme fatale, gangsters, murder - but because Fitzgerald chooses to focus on the victim, and how his actions lead to his own demise, it's literary fiction. If he instead had the story take place after the murders, focusing on the investigation, then I'd qualify it as genre fiction.

I would add that in addition to character driven stories, literary fiction can also include theme driven stories. While genre fiction, or at least good genre fiction, certainly has theme, it's not necessarily what drives the story.

(Note I'm making no judgements over which is better. Good genre fiction is better than bad literary fiction, and good literary fiction is better than bad genre fiction. Literary fiction is not inherently better than genre fiction.)

While I think Breaking Bad has it's foot firmly planted in the genre side (I disagree that it is Sci-Fi, though), especially by around the second season, like Gastby, there is definitely a blurred and fine line.
wilbert
9. lach7
Isn't crime fiction already a genre? (See the Hard Case Crime books.)

I don't quite understand the point of this post. Are we trying to prove that SF&F genre fiction is important because this particular show is popular and an instantiation of this genre? Isn't it enough that The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are "water cooler" shows already? I'm not sure why we're bringing in Breaking Bad here?
John Thompson
10. Fuzzy_Dunlop
Genre fiction can not be boiled down to just fantasy and sci-fi though. There are many facets of of genre that are firmly rooted in reality. But being reality based does not mean your not genre, Deadwood, Dexter and Hannibal certainly qualify as genre. For me personally the genre label has nothing to do with plot and everything to do with how the work is presented. If we go by my definition BrBa seasons 3-5a are firmly rooted in pulp fiction and genre in general, seasons 1,2 and 5b are more genre adjacent.

I personally think the term "genre" gets pigeon holed into just fantasy and sci-fi because throughout the years they have taken the most abuse and now they get the glory. But genre for me is a vast definition that covers everything from Tolkien and Asimov to Louis Lamore and Harlequin romance. Breaking Bad certainly falls into that category.
wilbert
11. olethros
Breaking Bad is crime fiction.

It's also a supervillain origin story. At the end of this season, Walt suffers horrific facial burns and uses Saul's guy to relocate as the dictator of Latveria. And Hank turns into a walking pile of yellow rock.
Andrew Mason
12. AnotherAndrew
Clearly 'genre fiction' doesn't just mean fiction that belongs to a genre, since, as Lisamarie says, everythng does. I think there are two reasonably clear and well-defined senses of 'genre fiction'. On the one hand, it can just be short for 'the genre' or 'our genre' - i.e., in this community, science fiction and fantasy. I've seen it used in this way reasonably often. On the other hand, it can mean 'fiction which belongs to a well-defined genre which has a definite community of readers and is marketed to them' - i.e., (in books) SFF, crime, and romance. (In films and TV, I think, there are more well-defined genres, and less of an amorphous mass of 'mainstream' material.) In this sense there is no reason to expect the various genres to have much in common - there are overlaps between them, of course, but there are overlaps with mainstream fiction as well. Genre does not stand as a group over against the mainstream. ('Mainstream' here is not the same as 'literary'. There are plenty of authors who are mainstream, in the sense of being sold without specific genre markers, but not literary - e.g. Jeffrey Archer or Helen Fielding.)

There seems to be a third, less definite sense of 'genre' in which it means, roughly 'SFF and other stuff which has something interesting in common with it', or 'SFF and other stuff which appeals to SFF fans'. I'm rather suspicious of this sense; I think fans do sometimes have a tendency to co-opt stuff because they like it ('This can't be horrible mainstream! It's good!'), and as I mentioned before in a discussion of Sherlock, this is worrying, given how annoyed fans get when others do it to us.

I don't think science fiction can just be fiction that deals with the consequences of science, if the science is totally realistic and its conseqences are this-worldly; I take science fiction to be speculative fiction (fiction about worlds not our own) whose distinctive features in some way arise out of science. So, why cannot we just say that Breaking Bad belongs to another genre (crime), and we like it?
Constance Sublette
13. Zorra
Why yes. Breaking Bad, like Justified, is part of the ancient and respected crime genre with roots in Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle and all like that. These tend now to be broken into a variety of sub-categories from policiers to cozies to you name it. Breaking Bad, like Dexter, is part of the criminal as protagonist sub-sub-categories. The Wire has both the criminal and the detective as protagonists.

Sheesh.
Geoffrey Dow
14. ed-rex
Sure it has the feel of a genre show, and definitely has science fictional elements in its backstory and occasionally (yes, magnets!) in the foreground, but it's real roots lie in Warner Bros' cartoons. Think of how few characters there are on the show, how empty its world is, and how extreme is the violence when it happens.

Don't get me wrong, I love the program, but it is qualitatively different from shows like The Wire, or even Doctor Who. Think Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes instead.

I wrote about it at greater length on my website, if anyone is interested.
Nick Eden
15. NickPheas
Crime is a genre.

Anyone who suggests Walking Dead is not an example of genre TV is an idiot who deserves no further attention.

Disclaimer: Breaking Bad has not shown in my country, at least not on TV stations I can watch and I have never seen it.
Birgit
16. birgit
Why does genre have to be fiction? What else are books about gardening, or cookbooks, or real science books?
wilbert
17. maddog
This is the same as when those Big Time Dummies tried to state Jazz and Rap were the same.

Trying to fit things you like into the box of your choice is a very narrow way of looking at things!!!

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