In 1993, novelist David Foster Wallace published his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” an assessment of the television watching habits of Americans. In this essay, he notes the importance and prominence of “ironic” viewing with a class of television watchers who are self-aware of their television viewing habits. Out of this, television producers make material that will be appreciated by these viewers and their ironic viewing habits. I compare Breaking Bad to Wallace’s arguments about irony in television and the methods that are used to keep people watching television.
David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” poses questions and speculation as to why Americans watch so much television. As a critically acclaimed and widely viewed series, Breaking Bad is a prime example for comparison to Wallace’s reasoning behind copious television consumption. Breaking Bad differs from many television dramas because of its rejection of mainstream archetypes. From this uniqueness, however, Breaking Bad is able to attract viewers and keep them infatuated with unparalleled success. The continual use of irony throughout the series flatters viewers and tempts them with desirable, yet dangerous fantasies. Breaking Bad’s success and uniqueness makes it an ideal television series to compare with Wallace’s theories about television.
Breaking Bad opposes Wallace’s observation that television portrays an idealized American life (151). Instead, the series focuses on disease, marital conflict, and violent crime. Just about every aspect of the protagonist’s life is the polar opposite of what is considered ideal. Walt’s son suffers from cerebral palsy, which is a push against the stereotypical family portrayed on American television. Also, Breaking Bad avoids common television settings, like generic urban or suburban communities. Instead Breaking Bad incorporates the sparse and arid New Mexico desert as an eerily un-changing part of the series. While Breaking Bad does not follow Wallace’s notion of television reflecting desired American life, the series makes heavy usage of irony.
Irony is essential to the plot and development of Breaking Bad. The most noticeable use of irony occurs immediately in the series: genius chemist Walter White partners with high school drop out Jesse Pinkman. Jesse, a former student of Walt’s, has almost no knowledge of chemistry and is comically ignorant. To make the situation even more ironic, Jesse educates Walt about the methamphetamine business and Walt’s social ineptitudes frequently lands him in dire situations, relying on the dimwitted but reliable Jesse to assist him. Walt and Jesse are archetypal “book smart” and “street smart” characters. It is here that Breaking Bad uses irony to appeal to an audience of average viewers. There is something uncanny about watching experts learn from novices, which gives this audience of average viewers reassurance that they are just as competent and have just as much potential as experts. While Wallace gives an example of how irony can flatter selected viewers (179), the irony of Breaking Bad aims to flatter many viewers. It is not a small minority of experienced or informed television viewers who understand an inside joke. Instead, the message is encoded to the audience as an “American dream” type optimism, or that anyone, no matter what their credentials, can become successful. Though Breaking Bad uses irony to inspire hope in viewers, the series uses irony in a much more menacing way.
A more controversial use of irony in the series is its depiction of violence. After a brief look, it appears as if Breaking Bad condemns violence, crime, and deception. Characters who engage in such vices are frequently arrested or killed as result of their actions. However, despite the outward criticism, these acts are glamorized. Compared to other television dramas for mature audiences, Breaking Bad has limited violence. However, what the series lacks in quantity is made up for by brutality and gore. In addition, violence is always directly tied to crucial plot points, conditioning viewers to associate violence with importance. Success and power in Breaking Bad are rarely, if ever, achieved without the use of violence, crime, or deception — the counter to this is that whatever is obtained this way will not last. While Breaking Bad serves as a social commentary on the deleterious affects of excessive greed and pride, irony stems from how the series allows viewers to fantasize about violence. This makes Breaking Bad addicting: viewers are able to experience glorified crime without any fear of the repercussions shown by the series. However, Breaking Bad’s tempting portrayal of crime has been too much for some viewers. There are several stories of Breaking Bad fans being arrested for drug dealing or attempting to live out the criminal fantasies they see on the show, including the winner of an AMC sponsored fan competition. Suddenly, Wallace’s concerns about lethargy and apathy from television overindulgence seem less dire. Though the violence of the Breaking Bad is used to give viewers a glimpse of an unfamiliar world, viewers find the dialogue and character interaction of Breaking Bad to be quite relatable.
Much like Breaking Bad’s avoidance of idealized life, Breaking Bad does not produce a seamless experience of dialogue and interaction. Rather than appearing fluid and “natural,” Walt delivers dialogue and acts in noticeably awkward ways, reinforcing his role as an outsider in the seedy underworld of the drug trade. This awkwardness does not solely function for plot, it makes the series feel realistic. Rarely in life do conversations and human interaction go as smoothly and well-scripted as in television dramas. Instead of using anger or disgust, Gilligan adds awkwardness and uncomfortableness to the dinner conversation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qp1sS9T-gU4. This is the opposite of Wallace’s description of typical television, since normal series strive to make dialogue as graceful as possible. Even though the majority of the audience cannot relate to Walt’s plight of illness and crime, nearly every viewer can understand the realism and frustration of the often uneasy dialogue and interaction between characters. Though Breaking Bad makes good use of dramatic and memorable dialogue, the series often relies on awkwardness and poor articulation to foster an authentic and relatable world for the viewers. This uncomfortableness, while rare in television, is common in everyday life and helps immerse viewers in the experience of Breaking Bad.
While Breaking Bad’s does not incorporate voyeurism as described by Wallace, the series provides an incredibly intimate view of the lives of the characters. Though Breaking Bad does not have characters speak directly to the television audience, characters often display paranoia about being watched. This paranoia alters the way characters behave and provides a unique bridge between television and reality. Walt goes through great efforts to conceal his identity and avoid publicity, which resembles the anxiety of being filmed for large audiences mentioned by Wallace (154). Though the characters’ concern is usually due to the constant fear of arrest or murder, this paranoia about being watched presents an ironic prospective on how a television audience is able to get an uninhibited view at the characters’ lives. Like Wallace’s indication that television actors are consciously aware of being watched (153), the characters of Breaking Bad make an effort to display this consciousness. In this sense, irony creates a type of television self-awareness: character anxiety within the show mirrors the anxiety than an average viewer would have about being watched.
Though Breaking Bad is not a typical television series, it demonstrates Wallace’s notion that irony captivates viewers, leading them to watch more. Viewers relate to Breaking Bad’s naturally awkward dialogue and fantasize over the stylized and dramatic violence. This makes the series feel both familiar and sensational to the viewers, creating an excellent combination that drives the audience to watch and engage with every scene in the series. The irony of Breaking Bad not only supports Wallace’s reasoning behind television consumption, it makes it the addicting, tempting, and awkward show that is so greatly loved by average viewers and critics alike.