What still makes “Breaking Bad” so breathtakingly unique, 10 years after it premiered

Stay out of my territory.
Stay out of my territory.
Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC
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On this day 10 years ago, Walter White’s dad khakis drifted in the breeze, a hilariously peculiar sight against the bright blue New Mexico sky, then plunged to the ground like a bird shot out of the air. TV was never the same.

From its opening moments, you knew Breaking Bad was unlike anything you had ever seen on television before. And ten years after it debuted, it remains one of the most innovative TV dramas in the history of the medium. If anything, Breaking Bad has only grown in status since Jan. 20, 2008, as dozens if not hundreds of shows in its wake have tried and failed to be even half as fearless as the AMC crime tale was.

Here’s why, after all these years, there still hasn’t been another show like Breaking Bad:

Commitment to a vision

Breaking Bad succeeded where many “prestige dramas” of this peak TV era do not, because it began and ended with one goal in mind: to tell a gripping, specific story. Lots of dramas today employ A-list talent and high production values in service of juicy plot lines, but they often only amount to glossy spectacle, failing to transcend the sum of their parts. Breaking Bad didn’t have that problem.

If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, you’ve heard this line before: Creator Vince Gilligan famously sought to show how “Mr. Chips” could turn into “Scarface”—references to the beloved British schoolteacher in the novella Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the drug kingpin in Brian De Palma’s famous gangster movie, Scarface. In Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White is a doughy, innocuous Mr. Chips-like high school chemistry teacher, over the course of the series slowly morphing into a meth magnate, the Scarface of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I knew Vince Gilligan was attempting to do something that has never been done on television before—to change a character completely from beginning to end,” Cranston said in an oral history of the series for Esquire. “Television had always been about stasis, characters that you could rely on, that you know very well, and that are comforting in a major way, and he was attempting to upset the apple cart.”

A TV show about a chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth to pay for his lung cancer treatments is pretty original in premise alone. But it’s where the story grew from that original premise that made it truly unique.

Towering performances

Breaking Bad would fall apart without Bryan Cranston’s central performance as White. Few shows rest so completely on the shoulders of their lead actors, and Cranston’s Herculean effort as the guy who breaks bad places it squarely among the greatest TV roles—not just of the last decade, but of all time.

When the show debuted in 2008, Cranston was not considered a reliable dramatic leading man. He was the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle, the dentist in Seinfeld—that comedic actor everyone knew and most people liked, but not someone you’d ever expect to play a drug kingpin. Casting Cranston was the first of many audacious decisions Gilligan and his collaborators at AMC made over the course of Breaking Bad.

Cranston, who won four Emmys for his role, was matched every step of the way by his co-stars, Aaron Paul (White’s former student and protégé, Jesse Pinkman), Anna Gunn (White’s wife, Skyler), Dean Norris (White’s brother-in-law and DEA agent, Hank Schraeder), RJ Mitte (White’s son, Walt Jr.), Bob Odenkirk (lawyer Saul Goodman, the anchor of Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul), Betsy Brandit (Walt’s sister-in-law, Marie Schraeder), and later on Giancarlo Esposito (drug distributor Gus Fring) and Jonathan Banks (Fring’s fixer, Mike Ehrmantrout).

Visual creativity

There are a lot of shows about drugs and crime, and most of them look and feel quite similar. Aided by an incredible color palette provided by the New Mexico desert, Breaking Bad was as visually striking as anything on television, becoming increasingly inventive with lighting and camera movement as the series went on. It found ways to make ordinary moments and conversations look extraordinary, a testament to cinematographer Michael Slovis and the other directors and cinematographers who worked on the show.

Here’s an example: A phone conversation that 99% of TV shows would shoot conventionally, not giving a second of thought to how the camera might increase tension. In Breaking Bad, however, that’s the first and and most important thought:

The series is filled with moments like that one, big and small, where the visuals enhance the great writing and acting on display. Breaking Bad proved the always underrated importance of imbuing television with a distinct visual flair, one watchers can instantly recognize. I find myself often thinking about the series’ indelible images—Gus Fring walking out of the nursing home room, the shootout in “To’hajiilee.” I’d be hard pressed to recall a single image from some of Breaking Bad‘s contemporaries in the genre.

Immaculate use of music

Breaking Bad had one of the better soundtracks in recent memory, flawlessly mixing existing songs with Dave Porter’s atmospheric music made specifically for the show. Music choices were playfully descriptive (“Baby Blue“by Badfinger), portentous (“Goodbye” by Apparat), and in the case below (“DLZ” by TV on the Radio), just downright perfect for a scene, never distracting from scenes but always amplifying them:

Last but not least: humor

Despite being a decidedly dark show about the drug trade, Breaking Bad never took itself too seriously. As grim as its premise was, the show managed to highlight the absurdity of the situation on numerous occasions, and through characters like Paul’s foul-mouthed Jesse Pinkman, it was sometimes genuinely hilarious.

Case in point, I leave you with the infamous pizza toss: