For those people who have signed-up for the Mars expedition and have begun intensive training, the recent airing of the final episode of Breaking Bad might will have passed them by. However, I would imagine that most of us will have heard someone talk about Breaking Bad recently and that at some point the box set will turn-up in our possession with the potential for us to watch it. Watch it. It is in many ways the best thing that has aired on TV in years, or possibly ever.
It is addictive. It is compulsive. It is satisfying. It is emotionally engaging. It is technically innovative. It is content rich. It is wonderfully observed. It is morally ambiguous and intellectually stimulating. It is current and it is universal. The jury is out on whether it is timeless. Every pupil that watches it, and there aren’t that many yet, says it is brilliant and some have said they cannot sleep the night before a new episode. And these are not the sons or daughters of Guardian readers; the newspaper that has most assiduously waved the flag for the TV series. These are your hard-to-reach, easily turned off, Grand Theft Auto immersed kids, for whom English is an unwelcome break between electronic-based stimulations.
This means Breaking Bad is a product of human creation that achieves everything that an aspiring artist would want for it. Ten million people watched the final episode; I would bet that by the time the box sets have made their ways round family members, friends and charity shops, the number of people who will have watched the travails of Walter White will be in the tens of millions or more. Millions of them will be the types of kid, and people, who never look at a novel, think ‘character’ means quirky and think ‘plot’ is something the NSA searches for. What I’m trying to say is that they are uninterested in crafted forms of storytelling or the language that assists in discussion or analysis about it.
Walter White, if you are unfamiliar with the show, is a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer. Lack of money, insurance and a crippled economy means that he chooses to use his chemistry skills to produce the best crystal meth, a drug that has ripped through areas of the United States like a tornado with similarly devastating results, if viewed from the interior of the house. As he embraces his criminality, the psychological drama of Walter White begins along with the others around him. Circumstances force decisions that create new circumstances and decisions and the result is compelling, plausible and moving television. It is powerfully appealing to a whole range of pupils (and teachers).
I can understand that there might be some issues with content, but this programme does everything that we would want a text to do. It engages; it provokes thought; it creates enthusiasm (I’m writing a blog on it!); it widens our cultural references; it makes science seem magical. If we had a text that could do this for our classes, we’d buy the set and spares. It will have pupils talking and discussing with a passion and engagement that would be astonishing, of that I’m sure. It raises issues so nuanced and ambiguous that there is plenty to reason about; and the characters are often likeable and easy to identify with, so there will be no lack of emotion, accusers and defenders.
It is a great text that has all the ingredients for producing great work and becoming a vehicle to develop skills. Yet we’ll probably never use it. It will be something current and relevant and will not appear in the classroom.
The fault is partly with us. I once did a unit for Fawlty Towers. It is probably the best unit I’ve ever written, which might not be as resounding statement in its favour as it may sound, nonetheless, it is probably true. I loved doing it. I categorised 6 types of comedy, taught them and then asked pupils to show how effective each one was in two episodes of their choice from 6 shown. Pupils were provided with selections of the script to facilitate their essay writing. It was a great unit to make; it was great to teach; it was well-received. Nonetheless, I was afflicted by guilt because it was actually too much fun – school should not be this much fun. A Depute came in and made a comment about ‘just watching videos’ as well, which summed up a general attitude.
The general attitude is that TV shows should not be extensively watched in the classroom. It’s not good. Less clear is why it is not good, but I think that the kernel of the attitude is that pupils watch enough TV at home so school should not encourage it. Obviously, there’s a bit of sense to that point, but as Marshall McLuhan noted, the conservatives were against the book when it first appeared, denigrating its potential for mass enlightenment. Similarly, we, as teachers, may be holding pupils back from materials that they could genuinely engage with, restricting their potential and shutting ourselves and our students off from well-thought out, well-executed texts that are TV shows.
The box set has rejuvenated TV in my opinion. It provides the money to finance these excellent series’ that are brilliant examples of writing, direction, acting, plotting, setting…you get the idea. They are as good, probably better, than some of the novels that we will drag unwilling kids through over the course of the year. Of course, I’m not saying that pupils shouldn’t read novels, but there are certainly a sizable proportion of pupils who would watch a TV show with enthusiasm and do the work attendant with it, rather than read a text. (Unlike the shibboleths of English Departments, these TV dramas must appeal to a wide audience or they fail and are cancelled.)
Now, do I genuinely believe that watching a whole series of Breaking Bads would be appropriate for a school? Yes. Perhaps not all 69, but a substantial amount would be perfectly acceptable and pupils could watch the rest on their own – I’m sure that most of them would. The glory of the box set is that like the novel there is time to develop interesting characters, plots and themes. And this wealth of content can be explored in-depth in a class. And if after 15 weeks all the class has to show is a really great essay and lots of unquantifiable discussions and engagement then so be it. That is always the danger of a really engaging text. Discussions increase, pupils want more of it, and there’s less time for work. It’s the boring texts where you have to keep giving work just to break it up which produce a mass of paper but little engagement.
In the age of CfE, the cross-curricular opportunities are endless – Modern Studies, Chemistry, Physics and Drama could all have a serious in-depth contribution to make to the understanding of the programme.
I’m dreaming now.
But, to sum-up my point. Breaking Bad is a text of great value. In a teaching and learning context it may be of inestimable value because it engages students deeply. Wouldn’t it be great to have something like that in the class?