There’s just something about funny guys playing villains.
In fact, there’s an argument to be made that what elevated Walter White, the protagonist of “Breaking Bad,” to the level of legendary antihero was the comedic sensibilities of Bryan Cranston. The series, generally considered one of the best TV dramas of all time, thrived because Cranston’s innately genial constitution added instant depth to a character that could have been one note. The actor, who to that point was best known for nabbing three Emmy nominations for his role as the clueless dad in “Malcolm in the Middle,” knew his way around a joke and was able to blend the pathos inherent to so much comedy with the menace of a criminal mastermind, making White a character for the ages.
Lurking among the vast swamp of Peak TV, there lurks another such performance, one that pits the natural charisma and positivity of its actor against the steely, unforgiving exterior of a far more sinister character.
I like to call it: Breaking Brad.
Odds are if you’re familiar with Danny Pudi’s work, you were a fan of NBC’s cult-hit, critical-darling “Community.” An ensemble comedy overseen by the deep-ish, dark-ish mind of Dan Harmon, “Community” featured a band of roustabouts and ne’er-do-wells that none-the-less became a grudging makeshift family. Among those characters was Abed Nadir, who Pudi portrayed with peculiar charm. Nadir saw the world through a pop culture prism of his own making, using art to orient himself in life, as opposed to vice versa. He was sweet and caring, if mannered, and someone who was unequivocally good, even when surrounded by less savory compatriots.
On the surface, Pudi’s latest series, Apple TV+’s critically acclaimed “Mythic Quest,” is fairly similar to “Community,” functioning as an ensemble comedy with a disparate batch of slightly unfinished adults marinating together in a pretty nerdy environment. Centered on a video game studio that produces an eponymous MMORPG, testers and engineers and executives and writers all toil together to try and keep innovating and benefiting their product, locking horns every step of the way.
Enter head of monetization Brad Bakshi.
Brad, as played by Pudi, is not so much a villain as he is an antagonist. He cares not for the creative integrity of artists or the needless niceties of the workplace. In a world where greed is good, and microtransactions are better, Brad is king shit.
And Pudi loves it.
“In terms of the differences between Danny and Brad, it is so exciting to step into somebody else’s shoes for a little bit and be someone new and to walk in their shoes to see how they see the world,” Pudi said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Brad has this ruthlessness, this cold-bloodedness and his ability to be frank, to be precise, and not care at all about what people think of him. For me, that is really thrilling to play.”
“I’ve always been a person who struggled in some ways with how my words land with people, or how I want people to like me. It’s nice to play someone who doesn’t really care at all about that. He just is good at his job. He’s confident in his own skin. And he’s not afraid to say what he feels.”
To see it in action is, in a word, delightful.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Because Brad is all about power and control, he functions largely as a blank slate and free agent in “Mythic Quest.” His single-minded mission statement — which boils down more or less to “make money” — leaves him working adjacent to, but not for or with, most of the rest of the company and allows him to serve as an agent of chaos within Mythic Quest headquarters, verbally dunking on anyone unfortunate enough to give him an opening.
“Even though Brad can be ruthless, he can still throw these darts that are just really fun zingers,” Pudi said. “When David (David Hornsby) is dressed up for Everlight (a staff-wide dress-up festival) he’s giving this whole speech in the bathroom and Brad is just standing there listening. The whole time it looks like he’s listening to what David has to say about Brené Brown and about this LARPing competition. And instead, Brad just says, ‘You pissed on your dress.’ It is so precise, and it’s just such a funny line.”
But Season 2 has revealed that the character, as is true of so many people, is something of an onion, and Pudi and “Mythic Quest” are more than ready to start pulling off the layers.
“From the beginning, I was wondering where we were going and if we would ever learn a little bit more about Brad’s past, what led to his compartmentalization or separation between work and personal life,” he said. “And so in Season 2, we get a chance to learn a little bit more about that. And it happens when his family intrudes upon his workspace, which to him is the ultimate kryptonite.”
It’s a development that causes Brad particular strife due to the schism it creates in another Season 2 development: his mentor/mentee relationship with new assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis). Once caught in Brad’s thrall, convinced that he’s the apex predator, Jo begins to question whether or not she’s hitched her wagon to the wrong ruthless capitalist. Still, the chaotic chemistry the duo display onscreen is evidently matched only by their comedic chemistry while filming.
“Season 2 becomes this new dynamic, where the two of them join forces and become this threatening duo walking through the halls. And I was just so excited because I think Jessie is so funny. She’s a natural collaborator. And it’s essentially two characters who think they’re in ‘Succession’ on a comedy show,” Pudi said.
“Working with Jessie is so fun. It’s just so easy to bounce anything off her,” he said. “And then as the season went on, before scenes, we would talk about different gestures, villain body language, we would do TED Talk hands, practice eyebrow raises, walk step-and-step. The wardrobe department jumped on board, they started matching our outfits a little bit. It became this wonderful show within a show, and it was just fun to see how we could maximize our villainy.”
And for as much as Brad is a departure from Pudi’s natural disposition, there are also ways in which he’s more similar to the actor than any other character he’s ever played.
“One thing that is interesting is that this is the first character I’ve ever played that is half Indian and half Polish, just like me. And it’s really exciting to be able to do that,” Pudi said. “But I think Brad had a very different childhood than I had. I think the similarities probably end there.”
Though, the actor pointed out, Brad did go to college on a fencing scholarship; movement is important to him. So it’s not unthinkable that maybe Brad has working knowledge of Polish dance, the same way that Pudi jumpstarted his performance career with Polish folk dance.
Imagine, if you will, a capitalist overlord with a secret life full of Polish folk dance that no one will ever know about. Dang, maybe Brad really is a genius supervillain, just waiting to take down “Mythic Quest” and, ultimately, the world with the power of Polish folk dance.