Haven’t Watched Much Since Breaking Bad, and Want to Lighten Things Up?
Here’s a roadmap for you to downshift into less intense television, freeing you from “Breaking Bad prison.”
⚠️ Note: This article contains a few spoilers regarding the shows Breaking Bad, Ozark, and Good Girls. Also noteworthy is that this article was written on Bryan Cranston's 65th birthday (3-7-21). Somehow, I found a suitable royalty-free image, above, to go with this!
As most television fans already know, Breaking Bad (2008-2013) transcended existence as merely a TV show. With a premise both absolutely original and painfully relatable, it proved a full-on cultural phenomenon — especially here in the U.S. where our profit-first healthcare system routinely bankrupts individuals and families.
While it’s true that the main character (Walter White, a.k.a. “Heisenberg”) spirals morally downward over the show’s five seasons — from a humble, vanilla existence as a high school chemistry teacher to a sinister, psychotic meth kingpin — fans at least understood how (and why) it all began. We readily sympathized with White’s situation; his cancer diagnosis threatened not just his life, but the livelihood of his entire family if he would have passed away and left them nothing but massive debt. To paraphrase a famous quip from Chris Rock (on a completely different topic): I’m not saying what Walter did was right ... but I understand.
From a writerly standpoint, Breaking Bad was also notable for truly perfecting a particular kind of excitement that’s becoming more common in the multi-season streamiverse. The now ubiquitous approach that’s both somewhat formulaic yet also enthralling is this: Introduce interesting characters and force them (arguably against their will, most of the time) into dire situations that never fully resolve. The writers of (many of) these modern shows have become masters at building intensity and rarely providing viewers with a breather aside from perhaps, one imagines, a reluctantly included occasional moment of comic relief.
Arguably, in the case of Breaking Bad, this came as an entire episode smack in the middle of the series — the infamous, puzzling, and much-philosophized-over “Fly” installment of Season 3, Episode 10. Looking back, viewers needed an episode like this; S03E10 was approaching the peak of the series, in my opinion, with healthy spans of episodes around this stage where one was, impossibly, more incredible than the last.
This engaging quality speaks to one other aspect of such shows: They not only need to adhere to some of the “rules” discussed above and stylistic norms we’ve come to expect, but they also simply have to be damned good. Breaking Bad had that in spades. I like to sum this show’s excellence up with the phrase “Breaking Bad prison” because it’s so undeniably great, the viewer is more or less out of luck when it comes to finding something else to satisfy his or her binge-TV addiction.
That all said, if you’re possibly interested in moderately reducing your dependence on adrenaline-inducing binges, and downshifting your way back to more normal television post-Breaking Bad, here’s a roadmap for you that preserves some of the above qualities, but gently steps you down back into also-good-yet-less-intense ground, from which you may safely go forth and enjoy, say, a nice dramedy or even a sitcom.
Your First Step-Down
We’ll start with a formulaically similar show that’s also not a knock-off: Ozark (2017 - present). In this series, the main character Marty Byrde gets himself (and his entire family) sucked into a desperate situation involving a Mexican drug cartel. Unlike Walter White (who was basically 100% innocent when thrust into his situation), Byrde was already somewhat involved in a shady underworld as the story begins. He and his partner were laundering money for the cartel, with Byrd being basically a lesser-involved worker-bee bean counter — a crooked accountant of sorts, though his participation had been, until the show’s beginning, presumably on the lower-risk side. In Byrd’s case, the big event that sets up the show’s premise takes him from the supposed safety of his detached involvement to life-or-death stakes in a flash. And it’s nonstop insanity from then on out.
Ozark contains many of the same intense do-or-die situations that Breaking Bad has, but it’s somehow one level less extreme. It’s tough to describe but, for example, fewer people are chopped up and dissolved in barrels of acid as compared with Breaking Bad. It’s also got more of a slow burn compared to the acetylene torch that Breaking Bad’s infamous for. But hey, it’s still a full-on burn!
Ozark is also jam-packed with outstanding characters. The Byrds, masterfully played by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, are certainly pieces of work. But viewers are treated to numerous other fiery locals such as the Langmore’s (especially Ruth) and the Snell’s (especially Darlene).
As in all of the shows we’ll cover here, there will be law enforcement characters. Where Breaking Bad had its Hank Schrader (who was both a determined, ever-closing-in DEA agent and one of Walter’s family member), Ozark had the FBI always in pursuit. And both shows certainly have ample gang representation. But Ozark also has more of a non-crime-related dramatic side as well — the marital tension between Marty and Wendy, the lives of their children, the political machinations involved in setting up a licensed casino, etc.
That all said, by the end of Season 3 (which is as far as the series has gone as of this writing), Ozark seems to be heating up a bit. So, this whole article may not hold up anymore if Season 4 becomes any more intense. As it is, though, I’d still rate it as a similar show to Breaking Bad, if somewhat less extreme for many of the reasons mentioned.
A Second Step Downward
From there (remember that we’re trying to de-escalate things intensity-wise), I’d recommend Good Girls (2018 - present). Without even watching it, astute viewers might anticipate a less raw experience than the previous two. Breaking Bad came from AMC, Ozark from Netflix, and Good Girls from a mainstream network, NBC. So, right off the bat, viewers should know that the show will rein itself in when it comes to portrayals of crime and/or sexuality. So, we’re clearly downshifting into PG-13 territory here.
NBC’s own marketing copy calls Good Girls a “comedy-infused drama that mixes a little Thelma & Louise with a bit of Breaking Bad.” That’s interesting marketing, by the way — NBC mentioning non-NBC content as go-to comparisons. As for the “comedy-infused” part, I suspect they wrote that in the early days of the show, when it still seemed a quirky premise to have three women (one being Retta from the wacky-slapstick Parks & Recreation, for crying out loud) fall on hard times, knock off a grocery store, and then get wrangled into an ongoing predicament from which they’ll never escape.
If Ozark was “Breaking Bad lite,” then Good Girls is “Ozark lite” — or maybe even “Ozark-lite lite.” It clearly (from NBC’s own description) has Breaking Bad-style plot formulas at work, though softened up to the limits of major network television. And, really, it’s too bad. I did like the show, and found all three seasons engaging. But, viewers who have seen the above-discussed shows (and likely other similar ones) find themselves wanting to see something more, especially in terms of character development.
The other two shows discussed here have main characters that grow darker as time passes. And maybe the show’s title is the key to the sensibility at play here — that they’re all good girls at heart (and therefore can’t or won’t ever become sinister). Yet, Good Girls’ insistence on having a “comedic” side holds it back from what it could be if it were set free to explore what might happen if they did “break bad” (so to speak) a lot more.
Where the initial episodes seemed downright empowering in many dark ways (with them robbing the grocery store and even briefly taking a rapist hostage), something falls off thereafter. The three women get absolutely trampled over in every subsequent episode. And, while they regularly survive tight situations via their cleverness, it’s painful to watch as they fail to truly embrace their newly claimed power, criminal as it may be.
Good Girls wants to be a show about three women finding strength, even if it’s via crime. And while they always manage to pull off various bold ideas and/or heists, they remain far too weak in other ways. As a result, they stay under crime boss Rio’s absolute control for the entire series (so far), needlessly give in to blackmail from what should be an extremely defeatable character named Mary Pat, and at one point they even completely abandon hope of reclaiming a massive stash of hard-earned cash stolen from them by a couple of delinquent kids. That money just disappears, never to be mentioned again by any of them (even when they find themselves, as always, in need of serious cash just a few episodes later). (I found that storyline particularly frustrating!)
I guess I’m just puzzled as to why the show will go dark in some ways (even brutally murdering Charlyne Yi’s adorable character), yet the main women never truly take matters into their own hands to fix these situations. Late in Season 3, nothing has changed, really, as 80s “Brat Packer” Andrew McCarthy’s newly introduced character treats the women terribly, and they (predictably) barely stand up to him.
Bottom line: The fact that they’re “good” isn’t the show’s asset; it’s its flaw. (My opinion. Your mileage may vary.)
But ... it’s still a binge-worthy show and well worth watching. And as a bonus, if you follow the roadmap outlined here, you can surely go forth and comfortably watch just about any normal-ish show out there afterward. A little Lucifer, a little Shameless, a little Bridgerton — whatever you like. You’ve been freed from the Breaking Bad prison at last!
✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains three blogs, publishes nonfiction and fiction all over the web, and writes books. His latest novel, the literary-comedic adventure “CHROO,” is a guaranteed joyride. Connect at JPDbooks.com.