Saturday, June 19, 2010

Breaking Bad

A number of economic or financial trends – I am not sure what falls under each of those categories, exactly, but I am talking about cost of things – have come together to degrade the quality of some traditional entertainment (if 50 years or so can be called a tradition). People can only be drawn to theaters in sufficient numbers to pay the bills by either reliable genre products (horror, juvenile comedy, ‘family’ animation films) or by over-the-top special-effect spectacles which nearly always sacrifice subtlety or character development or quality script-writing to fireworks and blood. In traditional TV, the cost of production and the desire to knock off the competition has led to imitation, ‘unscripted’ reality shows (where the drama and scripting are provided by the editing of endless film (‘film’ being an archaic and incorrect term for the bits and bytes by which these travesties are recorded) and require no more than willing non-entities whose physiques are matched in spectacularity only by their shameless exhibitionism and good editors.

The TV networks seem to attempt, from time to time, to generate a few award-worthy shows, which are apparently very costly, only to cancel them within the first year or two, to the anguish of the few viewers they have managed to attract. NBC, in particular has broken my heart again and again by hooking me and throwing me back like an undersized fish. I still mourn American Dreams, the only drama which ever got the sixties right, and which captured the anguish, the insecurity, the push and pull that tore at families of that era, which is now viewed as either all black or all white and as faintly comic. The sixties era was exhilarating for some of us, but frightening and painful too; there were a LOT of casualties, and not only in Viet Nam or at Kent State. Currently there are a few- very few – excellent network dramas, notably Friday Night Lights, which is only hanging on because a deal was struck with one of the satellite ‘cable’ distributors.

Even when a series has some quality at its outset and manages to survive, the scripts often degrade over time because the plot possibilities have been exhausted. The first season of the original Beverly Hills 90210 show attempted to deal with a number of real issues – the sense of entitlement among the children of the wealthy, teen suicide, absentee parents – but devolved into a soapy mess as the need to keep the characters busy and to deal with the impossibility of having the whole concept – life in an upscale high school – go on and on with aging actors. Even TV high school students must graduate sometime if we are to take them seriously. Incidentally, Friday Night Lights has dealt wonderfully with this dilemma by having the coach transfer to a new school, thus writing out a number of popular characters whose storyline had essentially played out and introducing a number of issues that are found in high schools of a less affluent area such as that in which the student body of the new school dwell.

The problem with good drama is that it must arise from the locale and the times and the characters and, if these are not to be cartoonish, the characters must take time to develop and most situations need to be set up with a solid back story. Moreover, there is something silly about important human dilemmas which are resolved in 30 or 60 minutes (much less, really, since it seems that about half of any show’s runtime is given over to advertising.) Cop and hospital shows are able to deal with this, because of the natural fact that police and medical work is essentially episodic – the crimes are solved and the patients killed or cured and the main characters move on. But many viewers have a point where they are surfeited with crime or illness and can tire of a whole genre, unless some compelling new aspect can be found. The western craze of the 50s and 60s suffered this fate.

For those who are interested in believable relevant drama, there has been over the past decade or so a growing number of well-written, well-edited, beautifully acted dramas and comedies which do not rely solely on tits and pecs, gross-out body part close-ups and massive explosions. It started in the pay cable sites, notably HBO, and has been moving into the non-network free cable channels like AMC. These sites do not feel the need for the massive viewer count that the major networks find essential, although by giving us real quality content, they are sometimes finding extraordinary popularity, positioning their shows as must-see events, capturing word-of-mouth attention and critical approval. The Sopranos was a most spectacular example of pay TV achieving this kind of success, but there is a growing list: Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Big Love, Oz, Entourage, The Wire. There have been ambitious (and much loved by the few) failures like Carnivale and John from Cincinnati. In part, the successes have benefitted from being freed of the requirement to avoid controversy which drives advertisers (and, apparently, viewers) away in droves from quality network offerings. They have simultaneously moved the bar on network content, by allowing ‘adult’ themes and language to become more widely accepted, although the imitators and followers have utilized this latitude primarily to make endless juvenile ‘quips’ about farts, or to say the words ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ liberally, usually to no intelligible, let alone worthwhile, purpose.

I have no idea why free cable stations like FX or AMC are able to develop or purchase, and sustain, quality shows with smaller followings than the major networks will countenance but such is the case. One difficulty for these quality shows, whether on network or free- or pay-cable is that they are nearly impossible for a viewer to get involved in, if he or she has missed the earlier episodes. A second characteristic that is overall a positive, but which has the negative issue that it can be off-putting to a viewer who has not yet been captured, is that good characters which are well-written and compelling plotlines which are portrayed realistically take more time to develop than is afforded by a single episode. Network TV often has attempted to resolve this dilemma (because it is a real problem if a viewer has not found enough ‘meat’ to return to the table next week) by beginning with an unusually long pilot episode which is more like a theatrical movie. This requires schedule juggling and can alienate fans of the regular shows displaced by the extra long pilot, especially if the pilot is very different in content from that to which the viewer is accustomed at that hour. The pay cable stations just go ahead and start the series and give the viewer the respect or benefit of the doubt of believing he will sample more than one episode before deciding that a show is not for him. One of the first successes of free cable was The Shield which, being a cop show, had the advantage of the kind of story that can immediately grab many viewers. But more recent shows of high quality on the free TV channels such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men have made the same bet that the pay channels made: they have taken their time to develop plot and characters.

One of the most amazing, and wonderful, of these high quality shows on free cable is the aforementioned AMC series Breaking Bad, which on the face of it has an almost comic (or horrifying, if you are a sober-sides) premise, a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher turns to manufacturing meth to finance his medical treatment when he develops cancer. This show, underneath the surface, is a remarkable study of how a man can become completely given over to evil. The characters are, without exception, brilliantly written by the writers and even more brilliantly played by the actors. They are believable people and many of them are not all that likable where they would normally be expected to be sympathetic roles – the wife, the son, the teacher himself, the in-laws… A friend and I both find ourselves put off mightily by the teacher’s wife, yet when I stop and examine her actions given only what the character knows and sees, I find her behavior believable, almost inevitable.

The astonishing arc of this story over three seasons – especially over the first two seasons - show a decent guy slowly becoming a monster. The lead character, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) becomes ever more manipulative, ever more callous, yet you can see the logic, the denial, the shielding of his psyche from observing the cost to others of his decisions. He manufactures meth, but does not sell it, so he need not deal with the devastation his product wreaks on the lives of his customers. When some inkling breaks though his firewall of denial, caused by some event spectacular and undeniable, such as an airliner accident caused, in a series of twists, by his product he is impacted, but his choice is always to harden the callouses that shield his sensitivity. He uses the grand old excuses of victimization (life has not treated him fairly) and love of his family to justify his activities, but slowly we can see how he moves way beyond any justifiable position. More and more people are made to suffer, and increasingly these are folks to whom he claims to be dvoted. Manufacturing meth is as addicting to him – the money, the use of his strengths, the validation of his manhood, the power – as his product is to the addicts who purchase it. He uses the show’s best character, Jesse Pinkham, a former student, to market his output and it is Jesse who actually retains some conscience and some feel for the moral issues and human suffering that is being enabled.

Jesse Pinkham as played by played by Aaron Paul is a marvel. He manages over the three seasons to retain sympathy. He is always just one tiny step away from cleaning up his life. He is the quintessential heart-breaking son, the boy whom parents try over and over again to trust, to bring in out of the cold. He is the friend that brings harm to all who care for him without intending to. He just never can quite get past the point where he bails when the going gets tough – and for Jesse, the going gets VERY tough. I have known addicts who would have been great guys or girls if they had not ever become addicted, but who can never quite make up the lost time required to get back to where they would be if they hadn’t slipped. As a person moves into addiction or gives in to his worst instincts he inevitably burns bridges which must be slowly and painfully reconstructed, requiring the very qualities of persistence and toughing-it-out that an addict most lacks.
I have seen shows I liked better overall than Breaking BadUpstairs, Downstairs, American Dreams, The Wire, Six Feet Under, to name some of the best – but I have never seen a show that so intelligently addresses who these drug folks are. We want to smack the characters sometimes. The show lets us see what they tell themselves, and why the near and dear hang on for too long, and why these same associates often give up just when their love and connection might actually have helped. Most of all it is a fascinating study of an ordinary man slowly giving himself over to total evil. The baby steps, the situational solutions that must be made instantly under pressure, the taking just a little more advantage of other people’s love, the lure and arrogance and self-justification of evil: all these are faultlessly shown as the series takes its time to develop.

There are many peripheral characters that are funny or engaging or heart-breaking. Each is played by a master actor. The show is not afraid that you won’t like it; it trusts you to see what is going on. There is never a misstep.

It all sounds rather awful and off-putting, but some of the characters are so likable, so human, and often even the worst situations are funny as hell. There is real suspense, the show never loses sight of the extremely dangerous world that drugs inhabit. A former dealer told me that any time a dealer, however white collar, however small-time, begins to make some real money, people notice. People with guns and connections and a notable lack of scruples.

There are a few scenes with a high ‘ick’ factor, but these are not constant as in Bones or the CSI series. And often, amidst the ick, the scenes are very funny – and this is coming from a guy who looks away when someone shows the ultrasound image of a fetus, or a lion pouncing on an antelope.

As is the case with many of these quality series, I probably would not have become a fan were I to have watched just one episode per week. For me, the opening to enjoying and appreciate these series is the full-season set of DVDs. This is how I watched the Sopranos, Nurse Jackie, Six Feet Under, The Wire and others. Since I have already rented the DVD, I will usually watch a least a full disk – two to four episodes. And I am hooked. I think these series and mini-series are where the highest quality writing and acting is going these days. I thing the whole of some series will one day be regarded as the equal of some of the greatest theatrical films. This is even more remarkable since (I assume) the storylines are developed as the series continues, rather than being written as a single long work before filming begins.

So anyway, folks, that is my take on the state of modern entertainment; you can take it or leave it. But I bet, if you take it, you’ll like it.


  1. I have finally gotten into Weeds, only because my cable company has the entire series available. It's very similar to this, in that the heroine starts selling marijuana after her husband suddenly dies and she needs to support the family. Although it's mostly meant to be a comedy, it's now going down the same road you describe above--marijuana may be rather harmless but you can't do business with it without being affected by and connected to the worse criminal crowd that also deal in deadly drugs, human trafficking, and murder. And we see how she compromises her principles more and more as the criminal element threatens even her own children. Since I never got into "Breaking Bad" (I love the title), I'm hoping to sometimes have a chance to watch it from the beginning. "Six Feet Under" is my all-time favorite coming around as it did soon after I lost important people in my life.

  2. Flooz - I have yet to try weeds, but plan to soon, especially since I discovered the website which allows one to view lots of TV free. Six Feet Under is one of the best TV series of all time - I loved it - but is a good example of something where I dipped into a single episode mid-series and almost never went back - a huge loss. it takes time to know and care about those people. It was such a soul-satisfying series. If you haven't watched the Wire - I strongly recommend it - it could arguably be the best TV series ever. Rough at spots (not quality, but rough to take, although not close-ups of gore), but pretty much flawless. I'd say season 4 (of 5) was the best, but the whole thing is wonderful. Each season started a new story arc, and each season I thought they finally had dropped a bit in how much I'd like it, and each season I was rivetted by episode 3. Truly a wonder.

  3. Did you remove something? Something that discussed jowls? And how you would look at the buffet of the good things in life, and think "but I have jowls." I meant to comment on that entry which was as always so funny but so true, but I can't find it now. A few weeks ago, I went to an appointment with a well-recommended plastic surgeon in Seattle, with the idea of removing my jowls, which would I have no doubt fix and correct my entire life. For a mere $16,000 he could fix me (but I would need to stop smoking first). For several days I seriously considered it. But eventually my practical side took over, thinking of the other things I could do with that $16,000. And not knowing what I would do with my fixed face except to admire it in the mirror occasionally. Still, I know the "but I have jowls," thing. It was great--you should put it back in here.