Samuel Johnson and Fiction in the Age of Netflix

Samuel Johnson Breaking Bad #2Naturally, as a millennial college student, one of my best go-to pastimes is watching the occasional episode or two of a show on Netflix. Most, if not all, college students alike can relate to the need for a little downtime, so why not, right?

Browsing through the new shows to watch, I’ve come across a vast array of classic television shows and movies. Great stuff. I’ve discovered the original Twilight Zone (do-do-do-do — do-do-do-do)

in the grandeur of its surreal and hauntingly timeless social commentary. I’ve watched John Wayne — the distinctive, the hero, The Duke and The Legacy — in the WWII classic depicting the D-Day Invasion, The Longest Day. And along my Netflix scrolling, I got in touch with my musical side, choosing Milos Forman’s 1984 drama Amadeus. Among these classics, all of which I enjoyed, I feel that I’ve found, or rather, rediscovered the awe and mystique of a modern classic of a very different genre, in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. Okay, okay — before you start sharpening your pitchforks and running me off the internet — please give me an ear and a couple of eyeballs on this one.

Breaking Bad is a modern classic and it very well may be a bit misunderstood in this category. The baseline story of Walter White, the sidetracked high school chemistry teacher that turns to cooking meth and drug trafficking to support his cancer treatments is a fascinating story. It takes the viewer through twists, turns and life troubles all tied and mangled together in this difficult life dilemma of Walter’s own making. It’s bad. It’s really bad. I know, I know — I promise — I get it. The show has very strong language, dark and oftentimes very morose themes, sexually uncomfortable content, gruesome, unthinkable violence, and of course the themes that accompany drug abuse at its absolute worst. Need I say more? Believe me, I’m not condoning Breaking Bad or saying that it is a cleaner show than many others on the Netflix spinwheel. What I am saying is that Breaking Bad, even at it’s worst isn’t too bad. It’s difficult plot lines and complicated characters in unthinkable quandaries is timeless and in the classical sense — a classic. Breaking Bad is actually pretty good as it shows the consequences of living badly. It shows Walter and his friend, Jesse’s lives with the above mentioned morally messy predicaments, void of the safety of fixed morals that naturally accompany the good of John Wayne-ish heroes. It is not sugar coated. Where John Wayne comes out on top because of his principled right and good, Walter comes out on the bottom because of his disingenuous wrong and bad. Breaking Bad in all of it’s gutsy awfulness allows the viewer to see that bad behavior, although it sometimes results in short-term rewards, ultimately proves to be damning and destructive.

Breaking Bad is pretty bad. It is. But, on the other hand, it is good in that it shows the stark contrast between the consequences faced by characters in the show that choose dishonesty and deception and those that go about their lives doing what is noble and right. The presence of moral dilemmas and glimpses of upright moral character in the show is what stands out to the viewer — even me, for example.The development of the characters, exhibited through both moral deterioration and moral maturation is what really sells this series to me as a modern classic.

In all of it’s badness, the character driven scenarios are drenched in the reality of consequential outcomes. Some shows that are similar, even grittier, than Breaking Bad in type and genre,seem a bit over the top and unrealistic. Some shows tend to portray characters in normal life situations as only consisting of actions and behaviors that are morally problematic. The characters and their unscrupulous behaviors and choices are even devoid of natural consequences. Sure. Sometimes people just plain get away with stuff. They do. There have been murders that are unsolved and atrocities and injustices to humanity that remain among some of the most heinous and puzzling unsolved mysteries. All of this does happen in reality. People do hurt other people.This isn’t anything new in history. It only takes a view of the nightly news to remind us of the unkindnesses we as humanity can perpetrate unconscionably on one another. The media, in all of its varied facets, is feeding on these atrocities. Ratings on accessible streamed viewing and movies at large are proof of the increased satiation of themes that show murder, mayhem and gratuitous sexual and violent content. Many of the popular shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and especially HBO right now are rated TV-MA and seem to project and glorify a lifestyle of carnality without consequences as the perpetual norm.

It’s difficult to find anything that is void of social morality decline with very little in a storyline that reflects the reality of eventual consequences. There seems to be plenty of nudity, carnage and profanity without responsibility and conscienable liability. What kind of message does the media present when gratuitous sex, graphic nudity, profane language, and gruesome violence are glorified? Is this the kind of media that we should indulge in? If so much out there can be defined as “mature,” is all “mature content” bad? How do we employ wisdom in making these perplexing multi-media choosing decisions when there are so many options available? Is there something to learn from bad moral behavior that will direct us to do and be better? Do I have to watch 1960’s reruns to feel like I haven’t been Netflixally violated?

In relation to these questions, I’ve done some deep digging. I have dug deep and in so doing, I have excavated some fascinating old essays and periodicals. I might even refer to these as “bloggings from the past.” Some are even past — way past — the past. I found some extremely sage and scholarly advice from English essayist, Samuel Johnson.You know. Samuel Johnson. 18th century “blogger-extraordinaire.” He’s the one who wrote and compiled the first comprehensive English language dictionary. Ring a bell? Well, if you don’t know who he is, take a listen. Johnson was a proponent of practical common sense and morality. One writer spoke of Johnson saying that he embodied for the English people “all [of the good qualities] that [they] admire[d] in [themselves].” Fun fact, if any of you are wondering why words like “selfie” or even “😂 (the laughing-so-hard-that-you’re-crying emoji)” have been added into the dictionary, you can thank Samuel Johnson. He believed that instead of creating a dictionary that taught only the proper words and usage of words, the dictionary should encompass the language and every facet of it in its entirety.

Among these, he wrote many essays in periodicals that dealt with social issues, most especially in relation to the preservation of morality and the importance of teaching and living a life of virtue. He actually wrote a sharp, opinionated essay in 1750 in his periodical the Rambler, which, in his day, went viral. He addresses what he believes to be the do’s and don’t’s relative to how writers should write fiction. His words seem to echo the concerns many of us have as a result of being bombarded by immorally saturated media.

Johnson took on the media of his day. He wrote about writing with a moral core and with social responsibility. He believed that when one would write fiction, a writer should consider the possible lessons that can be learned from the media and the potential influence the content in the writing can have on the youth. Literal youth, the young at heart, the young at mind. That could really include everyone. He expresses that “[fiction is] written chiefly to the young, the ignorant and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct and introductions into life” (Johnson, On Fiction). Deny it all you want, but the truth is, whether you’re a teenager or middle aged adult, each of us at some point fit into the demographic of “young, ignorant, and idle,” or as the up-and-coming urban poet Khalid puts it, “young, dumb, and broke.” Each person has the qualities of a youth and the ideas, scenarios, and situations that are presented in the media have the power to either influence for good or for ill. Johnson emphasizes that “[youth are] easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current fancy.” Most youth, and even most adults are looking for ways to fit in and feel “normal.” This may seem like a modern train of thought, but believe it or not, teenage and even any-age insecurity has been around even before Johnson’s time. With the presence of these feelings of needing to fit in and wanting to feel cool, individuals oftentimes look to the media they consume as a way to identify with a group. When the media presents immoral and indecent behavior, some individuals will look at that as a sort of norm and conform to that idea in order to “[follow] the current fancy,” as Johnson would say.

So, with this being said, those who publish this kind of media that is presented, not only to youth, but generally, should be careful when it comes to the type of message that is being presented. With regard to today’s media selections, there are a lot of shows that portray a life of sexual promiscuity, dishonesty, irresponsibility, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and everything in between as bringing true and lasting happiness. In regards to this, Johnson writes that although it is important to write characters based on reality and the “general converse and accurate observation of the living world,” he argues that “many characters should never be drawn.” Generally speaking, breaking the law and performing indecent and immoral actions isn’t generally what everyone does on a daily basis. Performing actions that lead to breaking the law and being incarcerated usually don’t leave people happy either. Johnson continues saying that drawing these characters, through the media, that ought not to be drawn “more frequently… [make] men cunning [rather] than good.”

This doesn’t mean that in order to be truly happy, one shouldn’t have flaws or imperfections. Each of us has weaknesses and that’s what makes us human and plenty of humans learn how to be happy amid flaws and imperfections. Imagine a television show where everyone is good and there is nothing bad in it. To be honest, a show where the characters are all perfect and have no character flaws would not be on the air for very long. It’s the character flaws that can help create a conflict, which then can be resolved. The rigid dichotomy between good and bad is what makes life life. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi speaks of this dichotomy. Lehi states that, “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so… righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one” (2 Nephi 2:11). Samuel Johnson agrees that the combination of good and bad is necessary. In this context, a character needs both vice and virtue. As Johnson states, “vice is necessary to be shown, [but it] should always disgust…. [and] Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices.” Disdain for characters that do abhorrent things, seems to be a natural response to socially unacceptable behaviors. We should naturally revile their very presence in our stories! But, these characters do bring a contrast — opposition — that can help teach a moral value, except when we glorify the behavior of the disdainful. As Johnson advises, when presenting a character’s vices, they should be presented so that the audience doesn’t want to imitate their actions.

We can have characters that have both vices and virtues, while at the same time not making their vices look appealing. According to Johnson, we need to be careful how we present the good, the bad and the ugly. If we choose to present the bad and the ugly, we need to take care that we show the accompanying prison time, loss of fortune, feelings of twilight zone-like craziness and seeing the love of your life leaving you for John Wayne and listening to Mozart. Just sayin’.

So, Breaking Bad. This show is, in my opinion, a good example of what Samuel Johnson wanted emulated in writing. TV shows can have characters with virtues and vices, and oftentimes more of the latter, and still present the vices in a non-glorifying manner and send a message worth discussing, especially for youth. There are a variety of characters that do bad things and keep the bad cycles going in Breaking Bad. And, there are some with redeeming qualities, too. Johnson would be proud!

In Walter White, we see a man who is driven to “break bad” because of a lung cancer diagnosis. He’s a good person with a good heart at the beginning of the series. But, we quickly see this mild tempered father and teacher turn a new, but not very glamorous leaf. As we see through the series, he makes morally questionable choices that he feels are justified because he either is doing it for his family, for the greater good, or to save others when it is convenient for him. At the beginning of the series, the audience can relate with Walter. He’s in dire straits and is out of options. We all have times when this happens. There are bound to be times when the bad choice outweighs the good, and the bad choice looks like, ironically, the only good choice. Although Walter is initially very relatable, through his choices he alienates himself from everyone that matters to him in his life, as well as the audience. He chooses short-term gratification through choosing bad over good. Walter, a desperate chemistry teacher with cancer changes into a godless, murdering, almost drug kingpin. The thing that I appreciate about this metamorphosis is that it absolutely shows the consequences of Walter’s actions. Although he gratifies every desire he wants, in the end he is left with no family, no identity, and as the romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley puts it, is left a “colossal wreck” (Shelly, Ozymandias).

The same can be said for Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s partner. Jesse Pinkman is a meth cook and a drug addict. Throughout the series, we see how Walter’s actions and manipulation of Jesse, accompanied by Jesse’s own impulsive choices, destroys everything that Jesse loves. As the series progresses, we see glimpses of what Jesse wants. We see what brings Jesse joy in his life. This is very evident in the episodes “Kafkaesque” and the series finale, “Felina.” In “Kafkaesque,” Jesse is asked in his support group about what he would do if he had the chance to do anything he wanted, assuming that money wasn’t an issue. He expresses his love for woodworking and that if that were the case, he would pursue a career in carpentry and woodworking. He recalls taking a tech class in high school and having to make a wooden box. He discloses to the group that making the box was the only thing he really gave his heart to in high school. This joy is revisited in the finale when Jesse is cooking meth against his will. He daydreams that he is creating a box out of wood. The scene creates a feeling of sublimity. It shows what could have been Jesse’s reality, but this picturesque scene doesn’t last. He wakes up only to realize that he is basically a slave. This scene, rather than painting a false idea about the consequences of being a meth cook, instead illustrates Jesse’s regret for having ever joined Walter in cooking meth in the first place.

If we look at both of these characters and their development throughout the series, we can see that the show’s creator and its writers do not glamorize or glorify vice. Johnson cautions us if a character is shown to be “indeed splendidly wicked…” but their wickedness overshadows their righteousness, “we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure.” This sort of character, which Johnson emphatically proclaims, “ought never to be drawn,” leaves the audience believing that it is possible to practice the “art of murdering without pain.”  Johnson ends his remarks by declaring that although vice is necessary, “virtue [on the other hand] is the highest proof of understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness; and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts, that it begins in mistake and ends in ignominy.” These remarks are very true in the examples of Walter and Jesse. We see that as the characters realize that the life of meth cooking, drug abuse, dishonesty, and murder only leads to destruction, they begin to be enlightened and come to an understanding. An understanding, that is, of the truth of what is right and what is wrong, although it comes too late in both cases.

In relation to Johnson’s words, we can see that in TV shows like Breaking Bad, although they sometimes overdramatize reality, they oftentimes present what in reality really does happen. When this is done in the media, books, movies, and television shows, they can be used to foster an environment of teaching and learning in regards to making decisions and living a virtuous and moral life. Instead of showing only the good, we can use the good and the bad in the media as a means to facilitate discussion regarding good and bad choices. In our own choosing of media, we can determine which media glorifies vice and which media presents moral dilemmas through a real-life lens. And in turn we can become wiser viewers. In becoming wise viewers, we can help others be wise in the media they choose to indulge in. In a time where morality is becoming more and more subjective, we would be wise to learn how to recognize the media that aids in building up morality as well as understanding the benefits of a virtuous life and seek opportunities to teach those we love to do the same, even if those lessons come from unexpected sources.

What do you think? Do you agree with Samuel Johnson on this issue? Is all mature content bad? Are there any tv shows, movies, or books that you’ve been able to learn from? Can “bad shows” teach good, meaningful lessons? Is it okay to let youth watch TV shows with mature themes? If so, when would allowing kids to watch, or read material with mature themes be appropriate? Please respond in the comments. Thanks!

One thought on “Samuel Johnson and Fiction in the Age of Netflix

  1. This article is one that has both made me laugh and think. I think some really good points were brought up about how shows should show both virtue and vice in their characters and that there should be realistic consequences for the character’s actions. I also agree that we should be wise viewers, as I believe that just because we can learn some thing good from a “bad show” does not mean we should watch shows with more mature themes or encourage youth to watch these types of shows.


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