Fans of the AMC series “Breaking Bad” know to expect audacious creative choices, but the product placement near the end of its fourth season premiere last night must have left some raised eyebrows, particularly on Madison Avenue.
In a scene of inspired black comedy, its protagonists cap a long night filled with murder and mayhem with a meal at a restaurant identified repeatedly during a four-minute scene as Denny’s. The national chain apparently paid to be known as the official dining choice of homicidal drug dealers.
If you missed the episode (and shame on you for that), picture the comedic contrast of a cozy pancake breakfast preceded by character Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) shooting and killing a rival chemist at the order of his partner, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), followed by their using chemicals to liquefy the body of a henchman whose throat was slit right in front of them by their boss. And to underscore the contrast, “Bad” cuts from a shot of the guys mopping up blood at the meth lab to Jesse sopping up ketchup with a french fry.
As Walt tried to convince Jesse that the murder was necessary to save their own necks, the Denny’s logo was like a third character on camera, appearing in the window outside their table and on posters either both of their shoulders inside the restaurant. The only thing that would have made the placement less subtle might have been AMC chief Charlie Collier walking by with a check sticking out of his breast pocket.
Creatively speaking, the scene was hysterical though risky given how touchy producers get about any kind of brand-plugging on TV’s artier shows. If you’ll recall, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner fought AMC to keep brand integration off his own show but apparently “Bad” executive producer Vince Gilligan has no such reservations. That’ll surely get him in good graces with AMC, which must appreciate a showrunner willing to cut a creative corner in order to cushion the financial burden.
But what was Denny’s thinking? As brand integrations go, it was either ballsy or stupid. Maybe it’s that rare marketers that can understand cable programming’s murky moral calculus, where even meth-mixing murderers are the good guys. But since when does Madison Avenue grasp that kind of grey area?