It’s astounding: one of the most critically acclaimed television dramas in recent years, possibly the most compelling programme of our generation, is almost unheard of in the United Kingdom. Breaking Bad, the meth-centred crime drama which has propelled Bryan Cranston’s career upwards and taken him from Malcolm in the Middle supporting actor to Emmy award-winning star, hasn’t aired here for years, despite its fifth series premièring in the States just a few weeks ago to unanimous critical acclaim. What exactly went wrong and took the British Isles out of Walter White’s territory?
Studio mismanagement is certainly to blame, to at least a certain extent. Five USA and FX both had their shot at airing the show when it was still in its early days, and managed to mess it up catastrophically. Between FX’s small viewership and Five USA’s insistence on airing one episode a night at 11 PM during the Christmas and New Year festive season, this particular American drama was almost doomed to fail. It smacks of FOX’s uninspired attempt to make Joss Whedon’s Firefly work; even the best shows can’t survive when they’re aired in a completely counter-intuitive manner.
At the same time, there are obvious cultural differences between the UK and the US which makes Breaking Bad a poorer fit for the smaller country, at least on paper. The University of Michigan issued a study suggesting that 5% of high school seniors in the States had tried methamfetamine at least once, while the British Crime Survey determined that only 0.9% of men and women between the ages of 16 and 59 reported having ever tried it. These aren’t huge numbers by any account, but one fact is clear: meth is a much bigger thing across the Atlantic than on our islands.
Is that enough to make the show unwatchable? Basing the programme in Albuquerque, New Mexico with a very American cast and premise doesn’t put off as many Brits as you might expect, it turns out; whether broadcasting networks are aware of this or not, the sudden move to bring the third and fourth seasons out on DVD this year indicate the show is finally being accepted by the British public. An Empire Magazine spread didn’t hurt the series’ chances, and while it won’t air here, buzz about the fifth season amongst further Emmy award discussion has spread even to the UK.
Why did the United Kingdom miss out on this generation’s best television drama? Ultimately, we don’t know, but it’s unjust for things to remain this way. With any luck, DVD releases will turn the show’s fortunes around before its big finale next year – so that if nothing else, Britons won’t be forced to break bad just to watch it.