(Spoiler alert: If you're trying to catch up on episodes of popular AMC Network programming, avert your eyes.)
Criticism is tricky to understand.
The absence of it can just as easily reveal the lack of substance as it can unprecedented excellence. In a properly functioning, emotionally healthy society, criticism is understood as the background music of both success and failure.
Our society is not emotionally healthy. We're insecure, devoid of the ability to think critically and lacking the resolve to self-analyze. That is why, in modern American culture, we've redefined "critics" as easy-to-dismiss "haters."
Truth is, a good critic is as likely to be a lover as a hater. Dan Le Batard is my best friend in the sportswriting business. He annoys the hell out of me with his constant nitpicking of my every action. My friend Bill Simmons has also been known to text me with unapologetic "feedback."
I bring all of this up because I love Robert Griffin III and loved the TV show "Breaking Bad." RG III has been spoiled by a lack of criticism, and "Breaking Bad" has been ruined by it.
A season ago, Griffin could do no wrong. No one dared to criticize Washington's electrifying rookie quarterback. Even in the aftermath of the most selfish, attention-seeking playoff performance in sports history, few critics chose to point out and focus in on Griffin's delusional decision to stay in the Seattle playoff game when it was clear his knee injury made him a liability. Most critics blamed Washington head coach Mike Shanahan. A national radio host unfairly analogized Shanahan to Calvin Candie, the brutal slave owner in the movie "Django Unchained."
Here we are eight months later, and it's clear Griffin is a hot mess. He spent the offseason making love to cameras documenting his rehabilitation, second-guessing his vulnerable head coach and demanding that Shanahan name him Opening Day starter no matter the health of his knee or strategic concessions made in deference to RG-Knee.
The Washington (Racial Slurs) are 0-2, and people are debating whether Griffin should be benched in favor of Kirk Cousins. This is the inevitable outcome when talented people are protected from healthy criticism, when criticism is dismissed as hate. We all need critics, even unfair ones, to keep us sharp and motivated.
An absence of criticism destroyed Brett Favre. There was a four-year stretch in the 1990s when Favre was headed toward being the greatest quarterback in NFL history. From 1994 to 1997, he threw 145 TD passes, 56 INTs, won three MVP trophies, won a Super Bowl and lost another.
John Madden serenaded Favre from the broadcast booth like Favre was Paula Patton and Madden was Robin Thicke hunting a prom date. Madden's man-crush on Favre was symbolic of a sports media cultural shift. Howard Cosell was officially no longer the gold standard for sports broadcast excellence. The critic was pushed out of the booth for former coaches and players able to enthusiastically hype the athletes into greatest-ever, heroic, must-see television stars with Batman box-office appeal.
For a time, Favre had no critics. He was a fun-loving gunslinger who brought joy to fans by his mere presence. He was accountable for nothing, even an affinity for pain-killing drugs.
Over the remaining 12 seasons of his career, he threw 295 TDs and 218 INTs. He never played in another Super Bowl. He became known for incredible gaffes on and off the field.
Brett Favre is Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad."
For two seasons, "Breaking Bad" was as good as "The Sopranos" and "The Shield." Gilligan oversaw an action show that occasionally pushed the envelope on reality but maintained credibility. But then, like Favre, America's new-age critics went overboard with their hype. A narrative was created that BB was potentially the greatest show in television history, on par with "The Wire." Unlike the curmudgeonly and deeply serious David Simon, creator of "The Wire," Gilligan is known as one of the nicest, most accessible show runners in television. The critics love Vince Gilligan as much as they love his hit TV show.
It's nearly impossible to find a word of criticism about Gilligan or the show. Gilligan is a gunslinger. His mere presence brings TV viewers joy.
David Chase of "The Sopranos" had critics. People questioned Chase's frequent use of dream sequences to explore Tony's character, the masterful, never-resolved Pine Barrens episode, the Vito-Johnny Cakes story line and certainly the black-screen ending. David Chase was daring.
So was David Simon. He took "The Wire" from the streets to the working-poor docks in season two. He killed off the show's most charismatic star in season three. He rebooted the show with kids in season four. And he stretched reality in season five with Detective McNulty orchestrating a fake serial-killer subplot. Simon was criticized and the show was ignored by the Emmys for all five seasons.
No matter what Gilligan does with "Breaking Bad", the critics praise its gun-slinging, impossible-to-believe plot twists. You would think there had never been a fast-paced, high-action TV show that explored the drug world, featured a white male's spiraling descent into immorality and showed the price paid by his family and former friends.
All of the critics bowing at Gilligan's feet need to re-watch "The Shield." Shawn Ryan's Shield covered every inch of ground "Breaking Bad" is trampling upon. "The Shield" did it without sloppily cutting the corners routinely cut by BB.
Vic Mackey, the Walter White of "The Shield," and The Strike Team, a gang of dirty cops, robbed a train. Without sacrificing a bit of action, Mackey and crew pulled a train robbery over 13 episodes. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman robbed a train in a single, 47-minute episode. It wasn't remotely believable. No critic uttered a word of complaint. No one complained when Gus Fring intentionally swallowed poison and set up a hospital in the middle of the desert to save himself and his right-hand man Mike.
"Breaking Bad" plays by a different set of rules than all of its predecessors. Nothing has to make sense or be remotely believable. As long as Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul act at a high level, Gilligan will fill the critics in behind the scenes on the story holes and the critics will write reviews explaining what defies explanation and doesn't take place on screen.
There's no accountability. Gilligan can throw multiple interceptions, but he's a gunslinger having fun out there. Last Sunday's episode played out like many before it, like a bad "Die Hard" movie. Walt's Nazi friends killed two DEA agents, dug up seven barrels of cash in the desert, passed on immediately killing Jesse for a flimsy reason, tortured Jesse, tossed him in a dungeon and then chained him in a meth cooking lab with a picture of the woman and child he loves hanging above his head. The Nazis did all of this in three to five hours (based on Marie telling Skylar that Hank called her three hours ago with Walt in custody). These same Nazis also confiscated $70 million from Walt and passed on killing him or leaving town because they plan on cooking more meth. A half-dozen skinheads have $70 million to split, what's the motivation to continue cooking meth?
The show doesn't have to make sense. That's why Walt kidnapped his infant child, went on the run from the police, the DEA and the FBI in a beat-up truck, returned his infant child to a fire station and the next day waited in broad daylight with a barrel of cash for a van to pick him up and carry him to a new life and identity.
You think the missing Russian from Pine Barrens is hard to explain? Ask anyone with a brain to explain any of the stuff that happened in Sunday's "Breaking Bad." It can't be explained. Unfortunately, its divorce from sophisticated, detail-oriented storytelling doesn't matter. BB is judged on a different standard. This final season is being hailed as the greatest in TV history. It's comical. Watch the last season of "The Shield." Vic Mackey and Shane Vendrell set the standard for the decay of a relationship founded in greed, desperation and criminality. Walton Goggins (Shane) set the standard for acting. Cranston and Paul can't touch what Goggins did in season seven of "The Shield."
But The Shield had critics. Early on, it was shot poorly because of budget restrictions. Some people complained that season-two criminal "Armadillo" was too depraved and farcical. Others bitched the show had too many characters and story lines to follow.
The show was awesome. It's what "Breaking Bad" had a chance to be, what BB would've been if the critics hadn't decided to go in the tank for Gilligan.
Michael Jordan invented critics to keep his edge. Critics are a good thing. They're not haters. Critics are the reason LeBron James might threaten Jordan's place in history. Peyton Manning is ending his career at a high level because he knows he still has critics, dissenters who believe he folds at crunch time. Tom Brady stayed sharp because he started at the NFL bottom and had to escape Manning's shadow.
We can still save RG III by showering him, when necessary, with the kind of loving criticism people controlled by insecurity and self-hatred will confuse with and dismiss as "haterade."