An honest discussion on the definition of the American dream as it relates to a popular television series was the focus of Thursday’s Project Pericles forum on the campus of Hendrix College in Conway.
A large group of students and administrators gathered over the noon hour to discuss the popularity and appeal of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” now in its final season after five years running.
The crime drama series, created and produced by Vince Gilligan, is set in Albuquerque, N.M., and relays the story of Walter White, a struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer. White recruits the help of former student Jesse Pinkman, and chooses a life of crime, producing and selling methamphetamine, to secure his family’s financial future before he dies.
The series has won seven Emmy Awards and has been hailed by critics as one of the greatest television dramas of all time.
The conversation was led by Dr. Chris Marvin, assistant professor of chemistry, and Dr. Glenn Jellenik, adjunct professor of English, and touched on topics of morality, economics, the balancing of work and family, and on the pursuit of suburbia and the American dream.
Both Marvin and Jellenik admitted to watching the show; Marvin said he was initially drawn to the show because he is a chemist.
“It’s a really, really good show,” Jellenik said. “The writing is great.”
Jellenik called the series “a cultural phenomenon” that began in 2008 at the onset of the country’s financial collapse, and resonated with American culture at “such a high vibration,” because it explored relevant and relatable political topics such as healthcare economics and a disappearing middle class.
“(Breaking Bad) began during a time when the American dream was failing for a lot of people, like Walter White,” Jellenik said.
Students began a discussion on the tendency of the American audience to root for the antihero, likening the show to television series “Mad Men,” “Weeds,” “Dexter,” and “The Sopranos,” indicating a shift in interest from series in the 1960’s and 70’s that favored protagonists in their depiction of the American family.
Jellenik contended that during that era, shows like “The Brady Bunch,” and others defined the American dream as having a successful career, a happy family and a nice home in the suburbs.
“What has changed, culturally, that we now want the bad guy to succeed?” one forum participant asked.Several audience members agreed that the morphing of the definition of “the American dream” over the years and society’s push to obtain more and more material possessions may be the reason for the audience’s empathy for the antagonist.
“The American dream is what makes good people do bad things,” remarked an audience member.
“A lot of the middle class feels hollow,” one offered.
“(The American dream) has become perverted,” Jellenik agreed.
“The American dream does not exist to me,” one audience member admitted. “If the American dream is not always reaching for more, then what is it? Is it a thing? And if it is, is it a good thing?” she asked.
At the end of the hour, the discussion concluded with several hands still in the air awaiting comment.
“I think the show gives its audience more questions than answers,” Jellenik said. “But that’s what good shows do.”
Project Pericles is a not-for-profit organization that encourages and facilitates commitments by colleges and universities to include social responsibility and participatory citizenship as essential elements of their educational programs.
The group hosts discussions on contemporary issues each Thursday at 12:10 p.m. at the Campbell North dining room in the Student Life and Technology Center. Next week, the group will discuss the issue of same-sex marriage as it relates to all three branches of government and the constitution. The meetings are free and open to members of the community.
(Megan Reynolds is a staff writer and can be reached by phone at 501-505-1277)