By SAM KRENZER
Guns, drugs, murder and stolen goods are words commonly plucked from the headlines of police logs throughout the country. However, they are also now regular guests in many American homes, folded into the fabric of highly popular television shows such as “Sons of Anarchy,” the recently departed “Breaking Bad” and the aptly named “Weeds.” On almost every channel it seems there is a show that traces the ins and outs of criminal activities. My family is especially fond of “Locked Up Abroad,” National Geographic’s hour long tour through various foreign prisons. Why do we find crime so appealing? Simply put it is because being bad is much better when one does not have to face the consequences.
Although it is too late to jump on the “Breaking Bad” bandwagon, the series having concluded two weeks ago, given the media attention to the show, it does not appear that we will soon forget “Breaking Bad.” The New York Times reports that 10.1 million people viewed the “Breaking Bad” finale. That number may seem small, but that means almost one in 300 hundred people tuned in.
Given the controversies present in America over gun control and drug consumption, condemnation would seem more appropriate than celebration, yet crime rules prime time. This does not mean that we are all closet criminals, but rather that we are appreciating these shows for what they are: entertainment. Entertainment can often be defined as an escape from reality, and in watching shows such as “Breaking Bad,” viewers are allowing themselves to be caught up in an alternate reality, sometimes even in their fantasies. One group of viewers became so invested in “Breaking Bad” that they placed an obituary in the Albuquerque Journal celebrating the life of their beloved Walter White, science teacher turned drug kingpin.
Back in 2011, David Segal wrote for the New York Times on how “Breaking Bad” is comprised of ordinary middle-class characters whom, like the rest of us, “inhabit a realm of moral ambiguities that’s overseen by a man with both a wicked sense of humor and a highly refined sense of right and wrong.” However, the redeeming quality of the show is that “nobody gets away with anything, and karma is the great un-credited player.”
While I may not support turning one’s mid-life crisis into a multi-million dollar drug business, the show does deliver on its promise of exacting karma, White dying of terminal cancer and all, and there is nothing as satisfying as watching good win out in the end.
Perhaps this obsession with taboo themes might be dismissed with the end of “Breaking Bad,” but there are other shows out there which could conceivably take its place as the showpiece of the American public’s obsession. If the drug world held appeal, then the prostitution and gang activity shown on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” might be the next step on the entertainment scale. Having premiered its sixth season in September, there is plenty of time to insert oneself into the hardcore world of a motorcycle “club” known affectionately as the Sons.
It is also not just the bad boys of television acting outside the law either; even the so called good guys are increasingly operating outside the law to get things done.
In “NCIS,” Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs often employs unconventional methods to capture his suspects, even going so far as to ask his token computer geek, McGee, to crack a national database. Where once these actions may have been condemned for their moral ambiguity, they now stand as valid and acceptable forms of entertainment.
In reflecting on America’s obsession with shows about the wrong side of the law, I have come to the conclusion that viewers find law-abiding citizens boring because they themselves abide by the law every day. People are not going to tune in week after week to watch their own boring lives run across the screen, but they will tune in to watch what their lives could be like if they were to throw aside their morals because that is fun. Viewers are also, in a sense, acting upon their own instincts, sans the consequences. We see how we would like to act but cannot because we are bound by a moral code. Characters like Walter White are the devils to our angels.
Everyone can identify with the need to escape; for some the drive to act out becomes real, and that is how criminals are made. However, for most of us it is enough to simply turn on our televisions and watch bad choices ride across the screen, forever remaining in the realm of fiction.