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Graduate course to break down 'Breaking Bad'

by jmaloni

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Wed, Nov 20th 2013 07:00 am

Bruce Jackson has the "Breaking Bad" bug, and he's got it bad.

But Jackson, University at Buffalo SUNY Distinguished Professor in the department of English, is mourning the end of the AMC television series and its protagonist, Walter White, in his own way: He developed "Breaking Down 'Breaking Bad,' " a graduate seminar for the spring 2014 semester that will analyze the critically acclaimed series' realistic storyline, development and execution.

Although the show ended Sept. 29, Jackson says there is more to learn from the hit drama. Specifically, he marvels at the approximate 60 hours of a single narrative arc, which he believes is "one of the most spectacular narrative achievements in television."

"What's happening now is something new," Jackson says. "This is not just an interesting TV program. 'Breaking Bad' goes into narrative and human and social complexity as no TV program has before. It is not like 'The Sopranos,' which was episodic; it is not like 'The Wire,' which was segmented. And it is not like 'Homeland,' which has had to direct itself into a new narrative. It is one epic narrative 60 hours long. We've never had that before, in any medium."

Throughout the show's five seasons, White, a former high school chemistry teacher, adopts the name Heisenberg as an alias under which he murders, cheats and cooks and sells crystal meth. The narrative starts with White's desire to fund his cancer therapy and provide for his struggling family, but soon twists with White's growing hunger for the thrill. Though there are other recurring characters, the show does not delve into any subplots and all the characters have a relationship to White; his accomplice, Jesse Pinkman; and their lawyer, Saul Goodman.

Goodman plays a pivotal role, according to Jackson. The unorthodox lawyer aids White and Pinkman in not only keeping their livelihood a secret and laundering money, but also by repeatedly offering a way out of the perilous business through new identities.

Throughout the semester, Jackson plans to have class presentations by guest speakers, such as representatives from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and Jim Milles, a professor and legal ethics expert at the UB Law School.

"The kind of drug trade depicted in the film could not function without lawyers who help the dealers do it; that is, they don't only defend them when they're arrested, but they give them advice on how to be better criminals," Jackson says. "So the series gives an accurate representation of how the illicit drug trade functions, how the DEA works and how some lawyers bend the rules."

And Jackson truly knows how the industry works.

In the summer of 1966, he held a 100-day position as senior consultant for field research on the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. Specifically, he worked on the Narcotics and Other Dangerous Drugs report, with responsibility for analyzing illicit criminal activity patterns and developing plans for reorganization in police departments, and suggesting changes in drug laws, along with a wide range of other reforms. Most of the report's suggested reforms, he notes, like decriminalization of drug use and legalizing marijuana, were not only ignored, but cut out of the final report.

Jackson and a partner visited drug users and dealers, rehab organizations, and city and federal police in New York; Houston, San Antonio and Austin, Texas; St. Louis; Los Angeles; and San Francisco. Many of the drug agents he met in New York were subsequently sent to prison themselves for stealing money and drugs from dealers and for taking bribes. He went on a high-speed car chase in Los Angeles and an all-night stakeout in Austin.

"That was the worst night of the job," Jackson recalls. "Eight or nine of us were in a van with all the windows closed and the air conditioning off in Texas in the middle of August. By the time they gave up about 5 a.m., it was incredibly ratty in there."

"Breaking Down 'Breaking Bad' " has been listed by the department of visual studies (VS 500) and cross-listed by media study (DMS 606), theater and dance (THD 513) and the UB Law School (LAW 692). The only requirement for the 16-student seminar is that students have seen the entire series before enrolling.

Jackson says students must be prepared to analyze the show and its recent adaptations and cultural significance; for example, One World Symphony, a New York City-based opera company, is adapting the "Ozymandias" episode from the final season of "Breaking Bad" as a new opera.

James Agee Professor of American Culture in the department of English, Jackson is an acclaimed folklorist, ethnographer, documentary filmmaker and photographer. He has published extensively on capital punishment and on American prison conditions - much of this work in collaboration with his wife and colleague, Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the department of English.

The pair founded and co-teach "The Buffalo Film Seminars," an undergraduate class ("Film Directors" ENG 438) in which films are screened and discussed weekly in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center in downtown buffalo. The series also is open to members of the public who pay theater admission. This spring will be the series' 15th year.

For more information on the "Breaking Bad" graduate seminar, contact Jackson at [email protected].

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