So I find myself in a debate on a Facebook thread about whether the television series "Breaking Bad" is good. There I am, arguing the point, when I realize that I am trying to have a substantive conversation about something of cultural significant in a forum which, of its very nature, is inimical to the expression of extended thought.
The life expectancy of a Facebook thread is, what? Maybe four hours at the most?
I'm talking to basically one other person, the only one paying attention at that point, with the exception of the host of the thread, and he's only still in the loop because he's the host and he's getting notifications on is iPhone.
A Facebook thread is just one of the things in modern culture that acts to limit our ability to think. And so I find myself trying to defend my very seriousness.
After I realize the error of my ways in trying to make an extended argument in a modern media context that is distinctly unfriendly to extended arguments, I remark that I will write a blog post on my thoughts, at which point my interlocutor, my friend Mike Janocik, says, "Blog away......but I do suggest you lay off the 'narrative structures' narrative [a reference to the argument I had been making]. This is television we are talking about. there is some really good rock and roll music, but to claim it falls short because it is not Miles Davis quintet is to miss the point."
In other words, I was making over-grandiose claims against "Breaking Bad" inappropriate to the nature of what it was (a television show). I would have taken it better had not Janocik just previously made a claim at least as grandiose: "Breaking Bad was about as Catholic a tv series as ever has been."
"I can make sweeping claims in support of my position, but you can't in favor of yours." Is that one of the rules of the game? If so, I simply reject them, and so here we are.
And, by the way, I'm interested in pursuing this discussion because I am in the midst of writing a paper I am presenting later this summer on the issue of heroism and irony in modern narrative, and this gives me one more opportunity for thinking about and discussing the relevant issues.
Anyway, ... So television is less significant in its cultural influence than other media? If that's the case, then my friend Jason Hall wouldn't have bothered to write the original post about how good television is now, citing "Breaking Bad" as an example.
So the question is: Is "Breaking Bad" good? Or, more specifically, is it Catholic (and therefore, ipso facto--in this context of a conversation among fellow Catholics, good)?
In saying that some aesthetic thing is "Catholic," I'm wondering what criteria we should employ. What is it that makes any aesthetic human creation "Catholic"? Would it be that, whatever it is--a book, a movie, a television show--that it articulates principles that the Catholic Church teaches--whether it articulates them in some straightforward manner or in some less direct way? That seems fair. So what principles does "Breaking Bad" articulate that the Catholic Church articulates?
Here's a candidate that Jason Hall, the host of this thread, proposed: "It illustrates the truth that there aren't good people and bad people, but people who make good and evil choices. A good man can become evil by embracing evil choices, out of fear, desire for power, or any number of other temptations."
On the face of it, this seems plausible, since Catholic ethics have traditionally been Aristotelian, which is to say that they center on habit formation: The more good things you do the easier it is to do them, and the more bad things you do the easier it is to do them. So Jason's argument would seem to qualify under the latter aspect of Catholic ethics: that it demonstrates that the more evil you do the easier it is to do more evil.
But I responded as follows: "A show whose structure of itself offers no way to distinguish between good and evil can't "illustrate" any moral truth. It simply doesn't provide the context for it. You may bring to your viewing of the show a moral context, but my point is that the show doesn't provide that context. It's very way of telling the story precludes it."
At this point Mike Janocik re-entered the discussion, all guns blazing, with the following comment: " If you don't think the average viewer can deduce a grave moral evil as Jessie measures his neck in a bicycle lock in order to chain his competitor to a post in the basement, I fear you've spent too much time with Blindside or Fireproof in which otherwise perfectly sane men sit in the back yard with diet cokes and King James Bibles......rather than double coronas and Jim Beam in the rocks. BB was a brilliant moral tale of a good man gone bad through a long, arduous series of rationalizations and a rejection of every day graces."
Of course, I've never seen these movies from which I am supposed to have gained my aesthetic sense from (and, in one case, not even heard of it).
My response is simply that Mike is assuming that the viewer has a moral framework by which he can judge good from bad and that to simply assume, on that basis, that this is in the show itself is begging the question, since my claim is that these kinds of shows do not provide, within themselves, any means by which such moral conclusions are necessitated.
Jesse, measuring "his neck in a bicycle lock in order to chain his competitor to a post in the basement" may be a grave moral evil to Mike--and to many viewers who, through the residue of Christian ethics that still permeates an increasing secular culture. But the moral judgment that Mike makes and that other viewers may make does not come from the show, but from themselves. But it seems to me that, if the show is really "Catholic," then this moral judgment should come from the show, not have to be provided by the viewer--a viewer who now, here in 2014 has Christian sensibilities because he grew up in a Christian culture, but who may very well not have those sensibility in another twenty or thirty years.
To make the argument Mike makes only demonstrates that the viewer is (wittingly or unwittingly) is Catholic, but it does not follow that the show itself is Catholic.
I maintain that in order to maintain that any story is "Catholic," that the moral judgment must be implicit in the story itself, and that it should not be dependent upon the reader or viewer to provide it outside the context of the story.
Mike criticizes me for the fact that I watched only the first season of the show and not all, what five seasons?Mike argues that this is "like listening to the first few notes of Vivaldi's mandolin concerto, then asking you to discuss the fundamental difference between the first chorus and the rest of the composition." This from the man who had just previously said, "television is a different vehicle altogether than literature." If it's so different from literature, how is it going to be any less dissimilar to something like music, which he just compared it to?
And simply saying, "You've just got to watch it" isn't an answer.
I teach literature. I can guide a class of Christian students through something like Waiting for Godot or Metamorphosis or The Stranger and we can benefit from the content and structure of the play or novel because we are Christians who have a particular worldview which is so all-encompassing that it makes sense even of those things that are not themselves Christian. But that doesn't mean those things are Christian―or Catholic.
So my question to people like Mike and Jason is this: What makes "Breaking Bad" a Catholic drama? And what makes it an inherently Catholic drama, not just a drama that can be viewed by a Catholic and making sense only because it is a Catholic watching it?
The show's creator Vince Gilligan supposedly wanted to "create a series in which the protagonist became the antagonist." I'm not saying that it is impossible to do this in a Catholic drama, but it seems that anyone maintaining this has the burden of proof.
I have a lot more to say about the whole issue of narrative collapse and how dramas like Breaking Bad are an example of this, but I'll save that for another post.