I started watching Mad Men not too long ago. Shortly after that, I began watching Breaking Bad. Those two shows have nothing in common except that they share a network and are possibly the two most critically acclaimed dramas on television. Whether someone is more of a Breaking Bad person or a Mad Men person says a lot about their tastes. Do you like rich, deliberately-paced period pieces or fast-paced, compulsively watchable crime dramas? I’m more of a Mad Men person myself. To me, it’s a textbook example of great drama that does not feature likeable characters. They run the gamut from conflicted (Sal) to downright horrible (Roger Sterling.) But Breaking Bad bugs me. It’s not a bad show by any stretch. Bryan Cranston is phenomenal, and Jesse Pinkman just might be one of my favorite characters on TV. But I don’t like Walter White, and I get the impression I’m supposed to. I understand why he does what he does, and yeah, he’s more sympathetic than most drug dealers I’ve seen in fiction, but he’s still not a nice person. And I don’t think he’s trying to be.
Call me a moralizing asshole if you like, but I really don’t think I’d make the same decisions if I were in Walter White’s shoes. I just might be the kind of person who would rather die and leave his family with nothing than compromise his principles. Does that make me better than Walter White? Not necessarily, but there’s an undertone in Breaking Bad that glorifies its protagonist, seeing him as a tragic hero rather than a selfish-but-brilliant man who used his personal issues as an excuse to run roughshod over laws and human decency. I don’t approve of that. Of course, I don’t approve of what Don Draper does either, cheating on his wife simply because he can get away with it, but I don’t think I’m expected to. Mad Men is a non-judgmental show; Breaking Bad goes out of its way to avoid judging anyone.
Speaking of judgment, is anyone else tired of hearing Radiohead referred to as “the Beatles of our generation”? The Beatles weren’t a once-in-a-generation band, they were a once-in-a-century band. There is no band of this era that is comparable to them. It has nothing to do with taste. The Beatles aren’t my favorite band of all time, or even of their generation. I’d rather listen to The Who. But they spoke to people on a level that has not been equaled by any rock band before or since. That’s a fact. Radiohead does not match that. Nirvana didn’t either. And I really, really like Nirvana. This is not to say that Radiohead is not a great band. In Rainbows is easily one of my favorite albums of the last ten or fifteen years. If I had to pick a favorite of this generation, I’d probably go with Sigur Rós. What can I say? I like the ethereal stuff. So stop putting Radiohead up on a pedestal, everyone. They make speak for a lot of you, but they don’t speak for me.
It fascinates me how dependent so many artists’ popularity is on the time in which they rose. My father has often wondered aloud what would happen to Mozart if he were born today. A genius like him would stand out in any setting, but would he still write classical music? What about rock? Two of my favorite examples of this are Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. Sam Kinison, roughly speaking, is the metal of standup comedy, screaming and yelling his way into the hearts of 80s audiences just like Metallica and Judas Priest. Bill Hicks was more confrontational, digging deep into the faults of late 80s/early 90s society and channeling it into one long, misanthropic screed. In that way, he’s like the grunge of his medium.
I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about who’s “better”. It’s absurd to pretend that one artist can be objectively “better” than another. You like what you like. All I’m trying to do is ask why people like what they like. Let me use just one more example. Every time a Studio Ghibli or Pixar movie comes out, critics argue over which animation studio is better. This does nothing but waste everyone’s time. Pixar movies are, well, more American than anything by Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s movies are more spiritual, having fewer pop culture references and less crude humor. One difference I have noticed is that in Miyazaki’s movies, the villains usually turn out to be decent people underneath it all. This has yet to happen in a Pixar film. In everything that I have seen by them, the villain is an irredeemable louse, willing to sell out their own mother if it means getting ahead. On one hand, this gives the audience more reason to hate them. On the other hand, it makes their characterization feel a bit one-dimensional. I’m not even going to tell you which animator I prefer. Why don’t you figure that out for yourself?
One of my favorite movies of all time is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Aside from featuring a tearjerker of an ending, a tightly-plotted nail-biter of a script, and a deliciously scenery-chewing villain, it features something unusual: a good performance from William Shatner. Apparently, the director forced him to retake every shot until he became bored with it, the result being that Shatner stopped hamming it up in his usual highly entertaining fashion and began to, well, act. If you haven’t seen the movie, you really should. It’s quite remarkable. What I like most about it is that for all of its brilliance, it’s still just a Star Trek movie, accessible to non-fans, but manna for Trekkies. It may not be for all tastes, but it’s just right for mine.