I am often worried when I come late to the party - normal for me - after hearing a lot of hype about a film or TV show. I was underwhelmed by Inception and Gravity, both wildly praised, and I can't stand the mighty post-Russell T Davies Dr Who or Sherlock, its psychic twin. (All of these are brilliantly performed, but woefully underwritten in terms of character and plot, in my opinion.)
The old fashioned, well-crafted novel is somewhat out of favour in literary terms, and it can seem overly prescriptive to insist that character driven plots will always trounce the opposition. But the magisterial Breaking Bad shows how brilliantly this formula can work. Walter White's predicament is Shakespearean in its intensity, but Dickensian in delivery. Walt is driven by insecurity and desperation for money, and his world is that of the average middle class US citizen. The American Dream has failed for him, delivering only debts and fears. His cancer diagnosis liberates him from his old life, and enables him to live with immediacy and passion. But not, obviously, in a good way.
We believe in Walt, and Jesse, and Skylar. We feel we know them. Effective characters can do bad things, and things that are implausible or extreme. The only proviso is that we have to a. accept their behaviour and b. be engaged by it. Spoiler alert if you have never seen this show: Walt has murdered two people by the end of episode three of the first series, and we still care about him.
So how does this relate to Dickens? Because this is slap bang in his territory - not geographically but in terms of character and class. A society in which respectable people can't afford medical bills is very Victorian, as is a world in which class defines relationships. The canvas of Breaking Bad is Dickensian in breadth, undermining not only the US insurance and medical system, but also its conception of right and wrong, and the assumptions made by mainstream society. Debt, hypocrisy and hidden or secret identities are all recurring themes in Dickens - even the fact that Walt is much older than Skylar is a Dickensian trope.
But equally important is the genre and mode of delivery. Dickens wrote in instalments, publishing one or two chapters of his novels at a time. Often, he was writing to tight deadlines, barely ahead of publication. Kevin Spacey has stressed that 21st century TV viewers like to binge on box set TV and challenged TV companies to follow the lead of the makers of House of Cards and release TV episodes at one time, the instalment format gives an added sense of drama and tension to the storyline. And like The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and many other celebrated US TV serials, the writers use this format to expand and develop the characters, bringing in twists and unexpected elements of back story which gives us fresh understanding.
I'm not the only person to make this comparison,either. Griff Rhys Jones said much the same thing in a recent interview with the Telegraph.