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So Bad it's good

Local View

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On Sunday evening, otherwise respectable citizens of Colorado Springs will retreat to their homes, draw the shades and go incommunicado for an hour or so. The withdrawal they've felt for the last few months will finally be relieved.

They will crowd around their TV screens and rejoice as Breaking Bad returns to AMC for its march to the series finale. The show that tells the tale of Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned drug lord, is wrapping up its fifth and final season beginning Sunday.

Like The Sopranos and Dexter, Breaking Bad has viewers root for an unlikely hero. In this case, it's a cancer patient who turns to selling meth as he tries to pay for treatment and provide for his family.

To those who don't have cable, or have decided to spite those friends who say you simply have to watch the show, it must be said: The hype is well-deserved. The show's been nominated for 42 Emmy Awards in four seasons, and is No. 13 on the Writers Guild of America's 101 Best-Written TV Series of All Time.

In anticipation of the finale (yes, I will be camped in front of my TV for the next eight Sundays), I talked to locals with different connections to the show.

Prior to Breaking Bad, chemistry teachers did not spend much time on the pop-culture radar. Rochelle Kolhouse, science department chair who teaches chemistry at Falcon Virtual Academy, says her students tell her, "You could be Breaking Bad." Her response? "No way."

"I personally would not know how to make meth," she says. "I know chemistry and mixtures, but I'm not near the chemist that [White] is."

Chemistry aside, Kolhouse also has no interest in breaking into the drug trade, though she (like so many of us) laments, "It's sad you could make so much money making meth versus teaching."

White has captured Maja Krakowiak's imagination for a different reason. As an assistant professor of communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (and a co-worker of mine), Krakowiak studies morally ambiguous characters in entertainment. She studies why we cheer on these fictional characters whose real-life counterparts we'd likely despise.

For one thing, Krakowiak says, her preliminary data suggests people feel better about themselves by watching these morally tainted characters; "downward social comparison" is the academic term. But, in a more pride-inducing observation, she says these folks also tap into our collective willingness to forgive. You can see it not just in entertainment, she says, but also in politics.

Krakowiak was involved with a study that investigated whether people would be less forgiving of morally ambiguous characters in the real world; when it came to public figures, that wasn't the case. Krakowiak explains these "celebrities" don't feel real to us and we tend to see national politics as a form of entertainment. Think of former New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer and former Congressman Anthony Weiner, both of whom have returned to politics (albeit with less-than-smashing success to date) after once-private transgressions derailed promising careers.

"We care so much about motivation," Krakowiak says. If the characters' intentions are generally good, she finds we're likely to forgive them.

Unless, perhaps, our job is to walk the straight and narrow. Lt. Mark Comte, supervisor of the Colorado Springs Police Department's Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division, is familiar with Breaking Bad.

"I don't find it all that entertaining," he says flatly. "When you see the effects of meth, you cannot be supportive of a show that shows it in a positive light."

Comte says meth is the biggest illegal drug problem in Colorado Springs. From June 2012 to June 2013, it accounted for the second-most drug arrests by CSPD, according to data provided by the department. (No. 1 was marijuana, but we know how things have changed.)

Comte tells of taking calls from parents whose promising, college-bound children are now homeless and addicted inside a year's time. After listening, I admit I feel a bit guilty for liking the show so much.

"You oughta," he admonishes.

Still, even Comte has a certain fascination with White's character, one that could lead him to check in on Netflix just to see how the series concludes.

"For a guy who's been dying for five years," Comte notes, "he's holding on pretty good."

leurich@csindy.com

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