So the Breaking Bad finale happened last night. Don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about it. In fact, I haven’t even seen it yet since I’m still three—now four—episodes behind. However, cursory glances at Twitter and Facebook have highlighted a growing, general problem with pop culture.
It’s actually been a lingering issue for quite some time. For the most part, it seems, people speak solely in superlatives. Or at least when it comes to things that they have opinions about that they want to speak to. Of course this is a massive generalization, but it is no less than a response in kind.
By and large, my social networks (at least those that aren’t also professional critics) have reaffirmed the overall opinion that Breaking Bad is the best show on television at any point in history. It actually might be the best piece of entertainment ever created! The drama crafted by high production values and a singularly amazing performance are all it takes to overtake other series like Pushing Daisies and Six Feet Under.
Let’s take a look at Grand Theft Auto V. It is, without a doubt, a stellar achievement in interactive entertainment. The amount of the details—the verisimilitude—laid out in this fictionalized representation of Los Angeles is simply stunning. Not only that, but the drama contained within the narrative and gameplay by way of the three-character switching mechanic is a revelation. Rockstar has finally managed to tell a 30-hour story where I was interested in all 30 hours of it.
To call it the best game ever made, however, seems a bit excessive. Or at least a bit premature. There are still a lot of problems I and many others can find with the game, problems that aren’t subjective, so perfection is out of the question, and yet many people hold it in such light. And once you consider that labeling something as “the best” can only be quantified in an objective way, there’s not much more to say about that.
To say it is your favorite game, however, is perfectly valid. I can’t argue whether your opinion is valid or not unless you base it on incorrect facts. Your opinion is, obviously, your opinion, a thought of your own that can’t and shouldn’t be controlled.
It should, however, be tempered when you apply labels like “best” to it. Many people just a little while ago had called Saints Row IV the best game ever. And before that it was The Last of Us, which had usurped BioShock Infinite. I’m all for revising and changing the status quo, but saying something is the best as a knee-jerk reaction seems rather ill-advised. This superlative label was applied to each one within weeks of release, a handful of days to objectively critique and analyze impossibly huge games in terms of scope, ambition, themes, and content.
Breaking Bad is, of course, a good show. It might even be a great show, a claim I might be inclined to agree with once I see the series finale, but for now I genuinely believe that years down the road, it will be remembered as an affirmation of AMC’s track record that basic cable can produce premium-quality content and that Bryan Cranston is an incredible actor. Production value can make up for a lack of characterization in the wings of the show and for the fact that what should have been a character-driven show was propelled by plot points, things that happen for the sake of happening.
This rampant declaration of “best ever” is perhaps indicative of a larger problem in modern society, where the now is always the best because it is at our fingertips and no further than a click or channel flip away. Historical comparison is left to those that do it professionally, to those that are paid to compare the new with the old through an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium. It goes beyond recognizing callbacks and homages and has to include thematic resonance over years, maybe even decades of television and film.
So when the majority of the people you talk with only ever articulate opinions on shows and movies in terms of being the best or worst thing they’ve ever seen and never in middling words of considered and calculated criticism, it’s easy to fall into the same trap. When I don’t talk to other game journo friends, I find it less than ideal to ever go beyond saying something along the lines of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” They don’t ever respond with any other meaningful elaboration either, so when I start off on my mental review and see their eyes wander, I remember that I’m not talking to another critic.
It’s mimetic. Not just my actions but everyone else’s as well. If you surround yourself with people that, by habit and through career choice, have dedicated large portions of their brains to remember the specifics of the good and bad of their experiences, then you tend to do the same. The opposite is also true. So when no one else is interested in discussing the purpose of a glance to a watch in a single scene of a video game or a movie, it becomes hard to maintain the desire to do so.
Now I challenge you to do this: articulate why you love or hate Breaking Bad. Put it into words what you like about Jesse Pinkman or why you didn’t like Walt’s turn in the middle of season two or three or whatever. It’s easy to apply a broad stroke of a feeling about liking or disliking something. Skipping out on the process of filtering purely reactionary emotions into discrete words and sentences guts the entire middle of a huge spectrum of opinions. It’s what turns your “best ever” into a thoughtful study of why you like what you like and an unearthing of what makes you, well, you.