‘Breaking Bad’: Reversing the Half-Century American TV Tradition of Turning Bad Guys into Good Guys

One of the reasons for the love expressed toward “Breaking Bad” may be that it attempted to do something that very few television shows had ever tried. Not just that, but it attempted to do the exact opposite of what seems to be one of the most prevalent trends throughout the history of American television. “Breaking Bad” gave viewers a relatively good guy and then inexorably turned him into a bad guy.

In a medium that for many decades seemed unable to reconcile bad actions with good character, the mere desire to commit to an entire run of shows that sought to reverse every single expectation viewers were raised upon is enough to warrant respect. Consider Luke Spencer from “General Hospital.” The single highest rating for any show in the history of daytime drama (soap operas) was coincident with the marriage of Luke and Laura. By that point, Luke Spencer was the show’s number one hero. The only thing that splattered a little mud on their wedding after so many years was the unfortunate fact that Luke just happened to have been his bride’s rapist way back in the day.

Luke Spencer is hardly the only example of American television characters that started out as bad guys who transformed into good guys. The basic thrust behind the story arc of “Breaking Bad” is that good guys can turned bad and we will still watch them. Heck, we may even still find a reason to root for them. That basic narrative drive is wickedly out of context with the historical background upon which it was written that if you know anything at all about the history of American TV shows you cannot but be taken back. From Hot Lips Houlihan to Spike on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as well as a history that goes backward and forward from those two points, the basic expectation of character development for any regular character was one in which a softening of the harsher, darker or at least unlikable character traits was the rule.

Characters have been breaking good for so long that the confusion of villain/hero and good guy/bad guy engendered by the nightly conditioning even spilled into the realm of gritty feature films. Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver” comes in at number 30 on the AFI list of Greatest Movie Villains. This places right above Mrs. Danvers, whose psychotic loyalty to her former mistress leads her to try to coerce the innocent second Mrs. De Winter to her death and just below the serial killer Rev. Harry Powell. Keep in mind that Travis Bickle’s claim to villainy is political assassination attempt thoroughly botched well before it had any chance to come to fruition and the murders of pimps and low-life thugs in a successful attempt to save a 12 year girl from prostitution.

As far as villainy goes, Travis Bickle is no Walter White.

Then there’s the number one movie villain on the AFI list. Hannibal Lecter. True enough, Lecter engages in extreme villain, but if he isn’t the real hero of “Silence of the Lambs” then he most certainly gets their by the time “Hannibal” comes along. The extent to which television influenced the inability to perceive that Travis Bickle is not a villain and that Hannibal Lecter is not a hero is debatable, but the argument that the small screen has affected judgment is clearly wide open.

Hot Lips Houlihan began as one half of an uptight, right-wing nightmare couple that made the perfect foil for the liberal sensibility of Hawkeye Pierce on “MASH.” At some point, even the nickname Hot Lips was deemed too villainous and got lost along with the harsh edges of unlikability that the audience saw in her through the eyes of Hawkeye. Hot Lips Houlihan became Margaret. Less uptight, more open-minded and, no denying it, far less funny.

Spike was introduced on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a wonderfully entertaining counterpoint to the numbingly bland Angel. Spike was all vampire; pure evil. By the time Buffy and the Scoobies disappeared into the sunset, Spike had been transformed into hero. A hero still with some dark edges, of course, but only dark as it related to the bad guy characters we didn’t like anyway.

The history of American TV is littered with the ravaged villainy of characters who were introduced as bad guys only to become at best less bad and at worst heroes who married the girl they raped when they were still bad. Xena was first introduced as an outright villain and with a flourish of redemptive magic she got her own show as one of the new breed of female kickass heroines. “Xena; Warrior Princess” was a great show, but you have to wonder what kind of show it might have been if she’d been allowed to gradually turn to the light side. The show kind of half-heartedly tried that approach with the character of Callisto who started out truly, deeply bad and eventually found her own post-mortem redemption.

What makes “Breaking Bad” genuinely groundbreaking TV, then, is not the collision of humor and grisly violence or even the inside look into the world of modern day bootlegging, but rather the breathtaking upending of the long tradition in American TV of transforming the bleaker aspects of a popular character into a something more comfortable for audiences to welcome into their home week after week.