[Analysis] - The Questionable Career Choices Of The Breaking Bad Cast, Post-Series

I think a reasonable argument can be made for Breaking Bad to be one of the best television show, ever. I'm not going to make that argument here, but I'm certain it can be made. From a character development perspective alone, it has few peers. So, a few weeks ago, when I mentioned that I thought Better Call Saul has the potential to be even better, that's no small thing. It is, in fact, huge, because of it's rarity. Success is rarely followed by success, and that goes double for a fickle entertainment industry, where "you're only as good as your last project" mentality tends to kill creativity, and lowest common denominator thinking usually wins out.

Breaking Bad had a large cast, not quite an ensemble, as everyone else was there to support the Walter White character, but the series gave every cast member an opportunity to be impressive over the course of it's five (or six, depending on how you count) seasons. They all received accolades and awards and praise for their roles, and because Vince Gilligan was smart enough to give the series an end date, they all knew when they'd be moving on to the next job. Which is when life gets hard for actors. They contribute to a piece of fiction that will outlive them, but they still need to work. Inevitably, they are forced to follow up their greatest success, and few casts better than the Breaking Bad cast the notion that success does not guarantee future success.

After the jump, I'll go through each of the principle cast members and the creator of the series, and touch on what they chose to do after they left what is arguably the best thing they'll ever do. Not to be mean, but as an illustration that the entertainment world really is a bully.

Jesse Plemons

Plemons manages to avoid the trap of having too many expectations put on him. He was only part of the cast for 11 episodes, he wasn't anywhere near a starring role, and his career is - relatively - just beginning. He's still in the supporting and guest starring stage. Getting Breaking Bad was a boon, no doubt, and likely opened up the number of offers his agent received considerably. But Breaking Bad isn't going to define his career in the same way that it will Aaron Paul's. By episode count, Friday Night Lights is a far more influential force.

Since Bad, Plemons has continued to appear steadily in small and supporting roles. He had a brief role in Tommy Lee Jones' fantastic The Homesman, and later this year will appear in a new Johnny Depp film, Black Mass. More substantially, he's been cast in a lead role in second season of Fargo, acting alongside Kirsten Dunst. Personally, I hated the first season of Fargo, but everyone else seemed to love it (which, I just don't understand why), so it remains to be seen if this will follow the unfortunate trend of the rest of the cast, or if Plemons will break out elsewhere.

Laura Fraser

Like Plemons, Fraser came to the show late in it's run, and won't be nearly as defined by it as others in the cast. She's Scottish, and as such, has the benefit of the smaller acting pool in Scotland and England from which to be cast from. Her filmography is a steady stream of 4 or 6 episode runs on various series, as well as supporting and co-starring roles in films, especially television movies. Breaking Bad was her first major American role, though she did play the role that eventually went to Morena Baccarin in the Homeland pilot. Geeks would know her better has having originated the role of Door in the Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere series back in nineties.

Giancarlo Esposito

Now we start getting into those actors whose careers directly benefited from Bad. Before, Giancarlo was the very definition of a character actor, which is not meant in a derogatory way. I prefer character actors. Uniquely (and likely tied to the success of the series) this cast is comprised nearly entirely of character actors. After his role as Gus, his career took a turn towards the lead, and the villainous. Recurring roles on Once Upon A Time and Community were step one, but his major post-Bad role was a lead in the LOST-style NBC series Revolution.

Revolution was a desperate, obvious attempt to make coin off a mystery arc format that has proven unsuccessful outside of ABC's lightning in a bottle. But, it was NBC, and to them, there is no such thing as a bad idea (in that, they are incapable of recognizing a bad idea when presented to them). Revolution limped out two seasons before the peacock got rid of it. Giancarlo has found better success in voice work, appearing in two Batman animated films, and currently doing work for Disney's motion capture Jungle Book. He is also expected to return to the role of Gus at some point during the run of Better Call Saul.

RJ Mitte

To be fair, roles that call for actors with cerebral palsy are few and far between. Mitte, it seems looks intent on using his Bad fame to move into the production side of things, while also keeping a small onscreen profile. He featured in a run on Switched at Birth, but has thus far avoided any major career stumble by keeping under the radar. He benefits greatly from Breaking Bad being pretty much the first job he ever had, thus he has literally his entire life before him. He could disappear entirely, like Game of Throne's Jack Gleeson, or carve out a comfortable niche career. He just hasn't really done anything yet.

Betsy Brandt

When the end of Breaking Bad was announced, Brandt was the first actor to line up their next gig. And it seemed like a slam-dunk win: the wife of Michael J. Fox in his self named return to sitcom television. The problem: it was on NBC. The result: it was bland and uninspired. Fox certainly was enjoyable, and Brandt held her own as the straight man to Fox's joker, but the show was the result of NBC's crusade towards mediocrity. the characters were pigeon-holed stereotypes, and the series was shorter on laughs than a triple-A sitcom is meant to have. The series, which was given a full season order without a pilot, was quickly underwhelming, and NBC turfed it after a year.

Dean Norris

Norris is a veteran character actor, and a go-to when it comes to playing law enforcement officers who are also kind of a dick. Exactly what the role of Hank, a character who was never meant to survive the series as long as he did, demanded. Bad gave Norris the chance to show that he was more than a jerk ass meat head (Hank in the first season is indistinguishable from the majority of Norris's other roles). It was a reasonable reaction then that Norris' post-series roles would be more substantial in terms of drama than what he'd been offered in the past. His two biggest roles were a co-starring role in Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, and as the co-lead and primary antagonist in the CBS sci-fi series Under the Dome.

Men, Women & Children is a mess of intention, whose faults can be laid entirely at the hand of writer and director Reitman (as well as a terrible piece of source material). Under the Dome, based on the novel by Stephen King, was an odd choice for CBS, land of the procedural drama, but has managed to carve out a place in the summer schedule when it has very little competition. My problem with the series is that, after the first couple episodes, it stopped being interesting. It was a late arrival in the LOST clone genre, and while the novel had King's trademark focus on character, the series has struggled to find a balance. The third season will premiere this summer, without series creator and writer Brian K. Vaughn.

Anna Gunn

Unlike the rest of the cast, Gunn took her time after Bad wrapped, and chose her follow-up project with care and dedication. and it looked like she picked a winner: Gracepoint, the FOX adaptation of the wildly successful and heartbreaking Broadchurch. the series was to be written by original creator Chris Chibnall, and star original series star David Tennant. Leading up to it, this appeared to be a slam dunk.

It wasn't. The scripts, most of which were carbon copies of the original series with the names changed, were lifeless in the hands of the Americans. Because, up to a slight point, the series was identical to the original, anyone who had seen the vastly superior British series had no reason to watch. It was like watching a high school production of Les Mis, after you've seen it on Broadway. And what changes were made successfully rob Gunn of the more poignant dramatic moments that defined that character in the British series, played by Olivia Coleman. FOX swept the series under the rug after it's first short series ended.

Aaron Paul

The actor who really inspired this examination, Bad had no greater fan than Paul. He was the most vocal and the most enthusiastic during the run of the show. And, his arc was arguably as substantial as Walter's. Paul himself is directly responsible for the character, as Gilligan had intended to kill him off early in the series, but it was Paul performance, and the realization that he could been considerable depth and pathos to Jesse that convinced the writers to keep him around, and given him heavy stuff to accomplish.

His first post-Bad job: Need for Speed, a video game adaptation, Fast and Furious clone that sank at the box office (except in China) that was utterly forgettable, and is nearly utterly forgotten. This was followed by a laundry list of direct to video films, then the role of Joshua in Ridley Scott's overblown biblical "epic" Exodus (the one where Batman played Moses). Again, the film tanked, disappeared from the box office, and will be quietly forgotten except when mentioning the climatic fall of Scott as a filmmaker. Considerably more successful has been Paul's Netflix animated series, BoJack Horseman, which he provides a voice for, and is an executive producer of.

Jonathan Banks

Banks, like Norris, was a character actor before he got a one-off job as a PI in the final episode of Breaking Bad's second season. A minor character whom the writers saw some potential in, thanks to Banks' performance. He subsequently turned Mike into one of the most fascinating, engaging and sympathetic characters on the show, and in many ways the tragic hero to Walter's villain. Immediately, his performance became a kind of short hand, with the Parks and Rec writers describing a character as "Jonathan Banks in Breaking Bad" (that character was Ben's dad, and the role would be played by Jonathan Banks).

After Bad, he joined Community, and showed some decent comedy chops, playing the straight man to Greendale's buffoons, as he had against Bob Odenkirk. He also showed up in Horrible Bosses 2, again playing the straight man. He left Community after one year when he was invited to join the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, where he was rewarded with a chance to expand and give greater depth to Mike. In doing so, he's all but clenched an Emmy nomination, if not a win.

Bob Odenkirk

Odenkirk was a big name get for Bad. A potential bit of stunt casting, getting the lauded comic and director from SNL and HBO's The Mr. Show to play the very definition of the greasy lawyer stereotype. Saul Goodman was a joke of a character, brought in to fill a widening plot hole as Walter's criminal exploits became less subtle. But he provided a nice bit of levity in the increasingly dramatic plot of the series, and producers brought him in full time. The audience loved him for the same reason they love Wynn Duffy: he's a survivor, and is able to weasel his way out of pretty much anything.

Then something happened. A joke by Gilligan and Odenkirk, about a Better Call Saul spin-off took the internet by storm. AMC, desperate to stay in the Breaking Bad business, made them an offer. Odenkirk was up for it, and while they were winding down the parent series, they began thinking seriously about a follow-up, likely a comedy to fit Odenkirk's talents. Gilligan joked as they were filming the pilot that it might all turn out horribly, and they'd made a terrible mistake. But AMC picked it up for two seasons based on early footage. And Odenkirk stepped up. As co-creator Peter Gould said, "Bob is able to go as dark and dramatic as the story needs him to. As the season went on, we wrote more and more dramatic material, probably more than we ever intended in the beginning, and Bob handled all of it." Better Call Saul is now easily one of the best spin offs in television history. That isn't hyperbole, and it's a short list. And to top that off, HBO recently announced that they've green-lit a new series, With Bob and David, that will see Odenkirk reunite with David Cross in a sketch comedy series. Though it's a tight race between him and Banks, Odenkirk clearly came out of Breaking Bad ahead of everyone else.

Bryan Cranston

There is no question that, of anyone, Breaking Bad had the greatest effect on Bryan Cranston's career. Before, he was a sitcom actor, defined mostly by Malcolm in the Middle and those couple episodes of Seinfeld.  Gilligan, based on a performance Cranston had done in the X-Files years earlier, pushed for him to be cast in Bad. The early years of the series, public reaction was confined to how amazing it was that this goofy dad was able to pull off this character. That changed pretty quickly into "how was this guy's talent wasted on lesser fair for so long." Cranston, practically overnight, was in a different league.

How he played in that league has been oddly disappointing. It began with smaller but pivotal roles in films like Contagion, John Carter and Argo, playing authority figures that he wouldn't have before. His leading roles in films have been largely villainous, as with the Total Recall remake, or the smaller and bizarre Cold Comes The Night. His biggest post-Bad project was Godzilla, hilariously so in hindsight, because of the massive misdirection his casting actually was. The films that he has taken "starring" roles in have all been critical disasters. His greatest success was his role as LBJ on Broadway in All the Way, a role he'll revisit for HBO. While a return to the role of Walter White on Saul has been suggested, but Cranston seems appropriately hesitate to become too typecast by this one character. However, given his selection of projects since Walter, he's in no danger of becoming overly associated with any other role any time soon.

Vince Gilligan

Vince Gilligan, as the writer and creator, had the unenviable task of attempting to follow up his magnum opus with something else. Writers, more so than actors, have a huge amount of pressure on them to maintain or exceed prior efforts. And that pressure has crushed better writers throughout history. Some flatly refuse to even try. Gilligan took another path: he hedged his bets. Having come from the procedural world of X-Files, and the comedically tinted world of The Lone Gunman, Breaking Bad is really until anything else in his bibliography. CBS quickly signed him to a deal to create Battle Creek, a procedural dramedy about a small town police force which he had pitched them a decade ago, when his name was not synonyms with quality. Then, unexpectedly, Better Call Saul went from being a joke to being a reality.

So, Gilligan found himself, so the second time in his career, in a storm of luck. He had two series, unrelated to each other, on different networks. If Battle Creek failed, he could move back over the the comfortable world of Better Call Saul. If Saul turned out to be a flash in the pan compared to Bad's lightning, there is a reasonable expectation that a police procedural would have legs on CBS, the network where a 10 year run is the average. As it stands, Battle Creek is the one fighting for life, while Saul is garnering accolades based on it's own merits, not just on the lingering effect Bad had. Either way, Gilligan's immediate future looks secure.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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