The last time I was in the grip of a television series was in the 1970s and Abba’s Fernando was the most popular tune on my transistor radio. It was long before Netflix, box-sets of DVDs, iTunes, Amazon, and illegal downloads changed the way we watch TV. It was before Dallas and bookies taking bets on “Who shot JR?”; before “The Thorn Birds” with wily Father Ralph de Bricassart breaking his vow of celibacy, fathering a child with the lovely Meggie, and still ending up as a Cardinal in the Vatican; and, it was before we watched ‘Roots,’ horrified, as Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery in America and whipped within an inch of his life for trying to escape.
What had me and most everyone else glued to our televisions in the summer of 1976 (other than the Montreal Olympics when an elfin 14 year old Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, dazzled us seven times over with perfect scores and three gold medals), was “Rich Man, Poor Man,” an epic yarn about two brothers, Rudy and Tom Jordache, the latter played by an impossibly young and handsome Nick Nolte.
We couldn’t have known that “Rich Man, Poor Man” would forever change the way we watched TV on both sides of the Atlantic. We only wanted to know what happened next. The first in the TV mini-series genre, the adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s novel, ‘Rich Man, Poor Man” had it all – the dysfunctional family, sibling rivalry, happiness and heartache, the beautiful girl, politics and betrayal, murder and mayhem – jam-packed into a dozen addictive 50 minute episodes that we all stayed home to watch. Rudy was rich and ambitious, the golden boy; Tom, scrappy and hot-headed, the black sheep. And, “Rich Man, Poor Man” had Falconetti, who along with some of Shakespeare’s bad boys, is one of the most villainous characters ever created. Almost forty years later, a little shiver of fear creeps down my spine as I recall him in the final episode, a black patch over one eye, looking down to the pier where Nick Nolte’s Tom dies from wounds inflicted by Falconetti’s heavies.
It made for fabulous television, and into the bargain, it aired on ITV which, unlike the BBC, had commercials, all of which only helped add to the suspense. I’m not the only person who thinks so. Even Matt Dillon’s character in the movie Beautiful Girls almost succeeds in talking his buddy into missing his high school reunion and staying home instead to watch all twelve episodes of “Rich Man, Poor Man,” back-to-back (the only way to do it) pointing out that:
You can’t tape ‘Rich Man, Poor Man.’ You gotta watch it with the commercials just like everybody else. Man, was there ever a more terrifying screen villain than Falconetti
Just as I waited to see what would become of Falconetti, albeit afraid to look sometimes, I can’t wait for Sunday night’s finale of ‘Breaking Bad.’ True, by the time these words make their way from my computer, across cyberspace, and on to the pages of my hometown newspaper, the speculation will be over. The final episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ will have aired, and its avid fans can go back to their real lives, satisfied or confounded by why it ended the way it did, what happened or should have happened to the middle-aged chemistry teacher erstwhile meth cook and distributor, Walter White. And Jesse. Oh, poor, poor pitiful Jesse Pinkman, not once have you been in the right place at the right time. Can the finale possibly be kind to you?
Admittedly, ‘Breaking Bad’ fever broke late in our house. It took me five years and several reruns of ‘The Sopranos’ to get Tony and Carmela out of my system, and after James Gandolfini died in June, it felt like cheating to throw myself into another TV series, especially knowing I would be seeing Gandolfini again in two movies released after his death, one of which I saw this weekend – Enough Said. Of course, I can’t say enough about his performance, all the more poignant, because it reminds us he is gone.
But last month, when the August humidity forced my husband and me inside to our chilly air-conditioned den, we began binge-watching ‘Breaking Bad,’ all five seasons of it on Netflix. Frantically catching up with everyone else, I found myself both gobsmacked and at the same time wanting even more of what happens in the dark and violent underworld in which Mr. White reveals the Heisenberg within himself, wholly consumed by what my father would most certainly call “pure badness.”
Speaking of my dad, he and my mother have not been watching, and by his own admission, my Editor at The Antrim Guardian doesn’t know the first thing about Breaking Bad either. So how do I explain to them why millions of us are enthralled by the story of what happens next when 50 year old high school chemistry teacher and suburban father, Walter White, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and then partners with a former mediocre student, Jesse Pinkman, to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine in order to provide financially for his pregnant wife and son after he’s gone? It is a ridiculous premise, isn’t it? Add vicious beatings, kidnapping, murder, money-laundering, the Mexican Cartel, a fearsome Aryan gang, an emotionless villain, Gus Fring, and it is tough to watch. But when the going gets tough, as Jesse Pinkman points out early on, “you don’t want a criminal lawyer, you want a criminal lawyer.” And, Breaking Bad serves up unscrupulous strip-mall attorney, Saul Goodman. In spite of his sleazy unparalleled corruption of the law, we relish in his razor-sharp one-liners and the occasional flash of humanity.
I don’t know what it says about us or the times in which we live, that a global audience can be transfixed by such a story, one that Blake Ewing, Assistant District Attorney in Austin, Texas, fears might “normalize the idea of meth for a broad segment of society that might otherwise have no knowledge of that dark and dangerous world.” I’ll leave that for the experts to figure out. (Incidentally, Ewing can’t help himself – he’ll be tuning in on Sunday night as well).
I just know that in anticipation of Sunday night’s finale, I find myself transported back to the living room of my family home on the Dublin Road and nights in front of a roaring fire, an epic American drama unfolding on the Mitsubishi TV in the corner.
I would almost be homesick, but then I visit Facebook or Twitter where friends from all over the world are trading Jesse Pinkman ‘Yos” and the lingo of Breaking Bad that is embedded in the social fabric of America. (Yes. People really do talk like that). I can’t help but smile at the extent to which Breaking Bad has connected us, engaged us in big conversations about right and wrong and the nature of ourselves. We are way beyond “Who shot JR?”
Just four short decades ago, a twinkling really, such transatlantic conversations would have been impossible, given the vast oceans stretching between us, and the airing of shows on America television months before anywhere else.