It’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything, and while this is mostly due to my preoccupation with finding a job, it’s also because I’ve spent most of the last few weeks watching a lot of television. When you’re unemployed and have a lot of time on your hands, there’s nothing better than filling the time with some TV, especially with so many terrific options. But rather than seeking an escape, I’ve noticed that I am gravitating toward series that explore difficult subject matter. In particular, the theme of living a double life seems prominent in the shows I’ve been watching.
The series I’ve found most entertaining: Nurse Jackie. Starring Edie Falco as the title character, the series follows a nurse living and working in New York. While Jackie proves herself to be a competent and dedicated nurse practically every episode, she compromises her job performance and home life with her addiction to pain killers and other pharmaceuticals. Fiercely private, she takes off her wedding ring upon arriving to work, never mentioning her husband or two daughters to all but one coworker. This secrecy conveniently allows her to maintain an affair with the hospital pharmacist, Eddie (another Sopranos regular, Paul Schulze). The duplicity fueled by her addiction drives the plot forward with the question of how long Jackie can maintain her double-life hanging in the air. She drives you crazy with her dishonesty, yet you can’t help but sympathize with her.
Another Showtime series, Dexter, follows similar patterns in its exploration of the title character played by Michael C. Hall. Dexter’s vice, however, is far more grisly than Jackie’s. As a sociopath with violent impulses, Dexter channels his tendencies into ritualistic murders of individuals with the same inclinations all the while working as a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. Dexter developed a code of ethics based on the advice of his late adoptive father, Harry (James Remar), who recognized Dexter’s sociopathic disposition during childhood.
The series, then, not only explores the conflict created by this moral paradox, but also examines the source of Dexter’s desires and his efforts to appear normal despite his inability to emotionally relate to people. To this end, the series uses effective voice over narration to contrast the charming Dexter we see with the hollow, compulsive killer we hear. The Dexter’s duplicitous nature, then, is not only reflected in the contrast between his professional life and his recreational activities, but also in his self-presentation and his inner thoughts.
Still, the most compelling series I’ve been watching that explores these themes would have to be Breaking Bad. This show, like the others previously described, centers on a primary character with a moral dilemma. The character, Walter White (played perfectly by Bryan Cranston), discovers he has lung cancer and must decide how to proceed with treatment. As a high school chemistry teacher supporting a family, he makes such a small salary that he also works at a car wash. The fact that his wife is unexpectedly pregnant raises the stakes. While Walter initially decides to forgo treatment due to the unlikelihood of success and the high expense, he ultimately caves in to family pressure. Still unwilling to burden his family with debt, he decides to cook meth in order to finance his treatment and save some money to support his wife and children in the event of his demise. Ironically, Walters’ attempts to take care of his family financially only seem to create more problems at home. Walter, like Jackie and Dexter, struggles to maintain a harmonious domestic life as a result of his participation in criminal activities.
But while both Nurse Jackie and Dexter certainly have social implications (doesn’t every piece of art?), Breaking Bad seems the most pointed in its critique of the current socioeconomic climate. Unlike Jackie and Dexter, Walter is motivated out of financial self-interest. With the astronomical cost of health care in this country and the paltry salaries we pay public school teachers, Walter’s plight reflects the sense of economic unease pervasive in this recessionary economy.
This social commentary is the reason that I’ve found Breaking Bad oddly comforting during my period of unemployment. While I’m lucky enough to have family support during this transition, I still feel concerned about my prospects in the job market and worry about my savings running out before I earn my first paycheck. The schadenfreude of seeing characters like Jackie, Dexter, and Walter, dealing with much bigger problems than mine cannot be underestimated.