College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences

USM Scholars to Examine “Breaking Bad” Viewer Fascination

Two USM professors – one a philosopher and the other a media expert –will examine next month why we love the crime-drama television series, “Breaking Bad.”    

Working from two different perspectives, Jason Read, USM associate professor of philosophy, and David Pierson, USM associate professor of media studies, will hold a dialogue about the significant issues surrounding the uber-popular television show, which ended after five seasons in September 2013.        

Read and Pierson, both faculty members in USM’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, will discuss such issues as work and autonomy, political and social implications, the concept of the anti-hero, fan engagement and the new culture of television viewing. Excerpts from the show also will be presented.

“There will be spoilers,” Read warned. “We can’t talk about the show without giving it away.”        

The USM philosophy professor pointed out that “television is becoming more and more something that people want to talk about in terms of philosophy. I hope we can show how different disciplines look at the same topic.”        

“Our interests do indeed blend to an extent,” Pierson commented, adding that he specifically would discuss the political context of “Breaking Bad.” “My interest is looking at the cultural and political context and the stylistic aspects of the show. 

Details of the event are: 

·      “Why We Love Breaking Bad: Work, Austerity and Autonomy”; lecture by Jason Read, University of Southern Maine (USM) associate professor of philosophy, with response by David Pierson, USM associate professor of media studies, author and editor of “Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Context, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series”; 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 9, 7th Floor, Glickman Library, Portland campus; refreshments; free and open to the public.        

Called the highest-rated TV series of all time by the Guinness Book of Records, “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White, a milquetoast, high-school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer who turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine to take care of his family. Broadcast on AMC, “Breaking Bad” won numerous Emmy awards, received widespread critical acclaim and was among the most-watched cable shows on American television.  

Read said the presentation next month is the Department of Philosophy’s annual spring lecture, which usually focuses on a general topic and in the past has looked at popular culture, including the television show, “The Wire.” The USM professor teaches a course on philosophy and the politics of work, which includes contemporary theories and practices and fits with the “Breaking Bad” television series. Last August, he also wrote an article on the show for an Italian website, discussing its popularity and the issue of entrepreneurship.        

As the program ended last fall, Pierson gained national attention with the book he edited and co-authored on the show, “Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Context, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series.” The book since has become the standard scholarly critique on the show.        

Read said he obviously liked the show and appreciated its dark humor, particularly “the way that the show allows people to tap into their anxieties and fantasies.” He said “Breaking Bad” is about “trying to use your resources and knowledge to gain autonomy, independence and wealth” and makes one “think about what people are afraid of in their lives and what they dream about.”        

The show gives rise to such matters as the humiliation of service workers, the conflict of people “trying to make yourself an unexpendable employee and [the question] can one be autonomous or are you always dependent on the actions of others.”        

“Everything in the show is very intentional,” Read continued, including the use of color, the backdrop of the American southwest, and even Walter’s car, an Aztek, commonly cited as one of the worst automobiles ever produced.        

“A lot throughout the series reinforces the sense of American Dream falling apart and not being as viable as it once was,” the professor said.        

Pierson said he would discuss the show from the social and political contexts of neo-liberalism, a political, social and economic theory that developed during the 1970s and the Reagan Administration.        

“Neo-liberalism promotes the idea of the market being the organizing principle of our social, political and personal lives,” the media professor said. “It speaks to our times and the pressure on working-class and middle-class America; the focus under neo-liberalism is on the individual and family, and not the social.”      

Pierson said he hoped that the audience would “come to understand the complexity of the series and the way it can be examined from a number of perspectives – it’s a very rich series. There are so many different layers that it invites people to go deeper in.”        

Read said he hoped that ideally participants would “see that philosophy is not just something about old books and something happening in class, but it’s also happening in television series, movies, all sorts of places.”