It's tough being first 'Breaking Bad' addict

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Five years ago, I watched the first three or four episodes of "Breaking Bad" with my buddy Scott weeks before they appeared on television.

Having devoured the first episode by myself, I took the screener over to Scott's house to watch it again. Then we watched the episodes that followed.

Already, "Breaking Bad" was proving to be one of those rare television series that required another person's presence to confirm that, yes, we really were seeing what we thought we were seeing.

Scott and I had no way of knowing it, but we were the first weekend bingers of "Breaking Bad." Because it would be weeks before anyone else would see those initial episodes, we had only ourselves to discuss it with.

When the episodes officially aired, we watched them again. Even after multiple viewings, we were still spellbound by the show's dark humor, moral complexity and narrative ingenuity. We were especially impressed with the ease with which the writers upped the ante with every episode. A very sympathetic character's descent into evil isn't easy to pull off. It was unprecedented in our television viewing experience.

In those primordial days when the first season consisted of seven episodes, Scott and I took turns rationalizing Walt's behavior. General observations about an economic system that would drive a "good guy" like Walter White to cook meth eventually gave way to intense discussions about the morality of his first intentional murder in Jesse's basement.

Then the murders started piling up with a rapidity that shocked us, though we weren't appalled enough to shift our allegiance to the DEA and its attempt to find the guys behind the potent blue meth saturating New Mexico.

Remember, five years ago, there was no cult of Walter White. Bloggers at Slate, Salon and The Daily Beast didn't dissect the characters' actions within minutes of the show's airing. There was no Twitter buzz. No one but TV critics and weirdos watched the show.

I vividly remember the blank stares I used to get from friends and colleagues when I insisted that the best show on television was about a high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer who turned to cooking methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for his family. It was such an unconscionable premise for a series that noses would involuntarily scrunch even before you could finish describing it.

Mere distaste always turned to incomprehension once people found out that the actor who played the put-upon dad on "Malcolm in the Middle" was the star of the show. "Bryan Cranston -- really?" they would say.

Yes, there was a time when "Breaking Bad" was a very hard sell. Over the years, Scott and I have watched -- mostly bemused -- as once skeptical friends and acquaintances jumped on the "Breaking Bad" bandwagon, thanks to the availability of previous seasons on either Netflix or DVD boxed sets.

We took pride in the fact that we never had to binge because we were with the show from the beginning. The only time we found ourselves sitting through multiple episodes was when I got screeners of upcoming shows. Sometimes we'd do three-hour marathons, gasping and laughing at Walt and Jesse's incredible adventures.

So, when "Breaking Bad" became a genuine pop culture phenomenon in the past year, I was ambivalent about its newfound popularity. Suddenly, really stupid people had discovered our favorite show and liked it as much as we did. Actress Anna Gunn, who plays Walter White's wife, Skyler, has had to deal with being accosted by some of these idiots on social media.

My lack of enthusiasm for the new popularity felt strange because I had been something of an evangelist for the show for years. I even delivered a lay sermon on the show's themes at a Unitarian church last year. I wanted people to watch it, but only "the right kind" of people. I knew that the show's moral ambiguity would be misinterpreted by literal-minded folks skimming its surface for thrills.

On Sunday, Scott and I watched the final episode with a sense of anticipation, and perhaps sadness, that our once exclusive club had been overrun by Johnny-come-latelies and phonies of all kinds. Where were these millions of "Breaking Bad" experts five or even three years ago? Where did all of these "experts" on Walt's anti-social behavior come from?

We were there at the beginning, we consoled ourselves when the final credits flashed. That has to count for something, but what, we're not sure.


Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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