Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thoughts on Breaking Bad


I just finished watching the 7-episode first season of Breaking Bad on DVD and wanted to echo the good things Todd has been saying about the show over at HND. (Most recently here) On it's face the show's premise doesn't sound sustainable, or at best like something that would last a few episodes over on FX. But appearances can be deceiving....

Just like Lost isn't really a show about an island or BSG wasn't really a show about space, Breaking Bad is only superficially about the making and selling of crystal meth. High school chemistry teacher Walter (deserved Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with cancer in the pilot and latches on to the drug idea as a way to ensure his family's financial future after seeing a TV report on a huge bust made by his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). The show is very specific about Walter's economic situation: he's as underpaid as any public school teacher and his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) is pregnant with an unexpected second child and apparently doesn't work. (There's also a disabled teenage son, Walter Jr., well played by RJ Mitre) Walter is forced to take a demeaning second job at a car wash in order to get the work of providing for his family done.

Series creator Vince Gilligan wisely doesn't oversell the show's criminal element, which isn't scary in a vague, glamorous way like so many TV drug dealers. The men that Walter and his ex-student partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) sell their product to are sociopathic, violent, and dangerously stupid and Walter's initial attempts to reach out to the dealers who can move sufficient quantity of his product are believably inept with bloody results. Although this is Cranston's show without question, Aaron Paul holds up his end and gives Jesse some needed depth as we get more information about his background.

In an extra on the Season One DVD, Cranston talks about a seemingly inconsequential scene in the pilot in which Walter demonstrates a chemical reaction to his students. The way Cranston plays the scene shows how much joy Walter takes both in teaching and in the scientific process himself, and it's a time efficient way of showing just what kind of man Walter is - or was before he wound up teaching high school in New Mexico. At first I was disappointed that Gilligan doesn't provide more background on what took Walter from working on research that contributed to the Nobel prize (according to a plaque we see on his wall in the pilot) to his humdrum teaching career. Later Walter and Skylar attend a party at the home of an ex-colleague who (it's implied) has gotten rich running a company that was started based on work Walter played a major role in and is married to a woman (Jessica Hecht) with whom Walter had a history. All the flashbacks in the world can only take an audience so far; what matters isn't so much the details of how Walter go where he is but that he has the intelligence, energy, and passion to walk a dangerous path in an attempt leave something for Skylar and his children.

So far in Season 2 the net has tightened slowly around Walter as Hank (who traced equipment used to make the meth to Walter's high school chemistry lab) stumbles across Jesse's connection to a local drug kingpin but doesn't quite have the leverage to hold Jesse or get him to flip. As Todd pointed out in an earlier post, it's the blind spot of family that prevents Hank from seeing what's in front of him and also what has made Breaking Bad such an unexpectedly must-watch series.

(also posted at Mostly Movies)

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"The Grandfather" - Gossip Girl, episode 2.19


In Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming there's an offhand line I've always liked when the main character's girlfriend is telling Grover (Josh Hamilton) about her plans to study in Europe. "I've been to Prague," Grover replies. "Well, I haven't BEEN TO PRAGUE been to Prague." I was reminded of that moment when watching last night's Gossip Girl, in which Nate dips a toe in the water of a non-Upper East Side existence.

The Grandfather of the title is Nate's; he's played by the veteran actor James Naughton, who was warbling "Danny Boy" and being vetted for Secretary of Energy a couple of weeks ago on Damages. Did you remember that Nate was part of the Vanderbilt family? I didn't, so it came as a surprise when Nate was whisked off to his grandfather's mansion for a crash course in the family business (politics) and a weekend of touch football and networking. Vanessa and Dan come along for the ride and Vanessa is understandably wary of seeing Nate with his family, especially once he's welcomed back with open arms and all that business with his criminal father swept away. All of this would be a good deal more compelling if Nate hadn't been shuffled off to the sidelines this season, reduced to wandering around Manhattan and squatting in his own home while developing a crush on Jenny that never felt right. But all of that's behind him now; it's serious prodigal (grand)son returns time.

Despite the fact that Nate had been openly contemptuous of the way his family shunned him after his father's flight, he proves himself not quite ready to break free of the Vanderbilt shadow and start his own life. A planned European backpack trip with Vanessa (that was what made me think of the "Been to Prague" line) is cast aside for a summer internship at the Mayor's office. Say what you will about Dan and Chuck, I think either one of them would have shown a little more backbone when their future was on the line. That said, Nate's capitulation to his grandfather's wishes felt like something a teenager might actually do when faced with a similar situation. That means that compared to the typical GG episode this week might as well have been a Frederick Wiseman film; it's refreshing to see one of the character's not acting like one of the slightly robotic proto-adults we've come to know and love.

We find Blair at a crisis point, having done God knows what with the odious Carter and apparently ready to begin the dissolute, no-college phase of her life. Or is she? Carter is easily dispensed with thanks to a blackmail threat from Serena (what happened on that trip?), but Chuck and Serena believe Blair has fallen in with a dangerous crowd. They follow her to a townhouse where they find Blair not reenacting scenes from Belle du Jour but rather begging a Sarah Lawrence administrator to let her into fall's freshman class. That doesn't work, so Blair sets out on a booze-soaked mission to forever ruin her name among the ritzy and glitzy. Thank goodness for Chuck, who certainly shows more heart than we've seen from him lately. He pulls Blair away from trouble but realizes she's not the same girl he fell in love with.

The scene between Blair and Nate at the party felt both right and wrong to me. The awkwardness and sweetness of finding yourself with an old love was there, but the scene was (as usual) overwritten so that nobody sounded like a high school student. As for the "What the...." moment at the end with Nate in Blair's bedroom, it's either a bit of misdirection or more likely a setup for the season-ending Blair-Chuck showdown. I'm waiting for the episode in which everyone who's not going to Yale next year decides to room together in an apartment just off campus.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

TV on the Internet, Episode 1: Brain Cancer Ghost Sex


Just in case anyone still checks this blog ...

About a year ago, I started to realize that keeping a TV blog was becoming an increasingly ridiculous task. There are SO MANY TV blogs now, and they're all saying pretty much the same things. This is not to mention that none of us can compete with Alan Sepinwall or The AV Club or what-have-you, and we all pretty much end up saying the same things. Around the time of the writers strike's end, I began to realize that I just was having trouble working up the initiative to write six-to-seven paragraphs on The Office. It didn't help that I was shifted out of my position in my workplace as a TV writer over to a job that had nothing to do with TV, kinda killing my enthusiasm.

At first I thought maybe I was done with TV criticism. Maybe I was ready to move over to writing TV scripts (something I'm still plugging away at) full time. But I couldn't stop WATCHING TV and thinking about it. Gradually, I reimmersed myself in TV blogging over at The House Next Door, and I started to think about ways to revive SDD. Which is where the new SDD podcast, TV on the Internet, comes in.

Podcasting, of course, was first big in 2005 or so, but it all ties in to the start of this blog, which came a good three years after the first big excitement over blogging. When I started this blog, there were very few TV blogs, so even though it was started as a general pop culture catch-all, it quickly became a TV blog to fill that void. Similarly, there are a LOT of very specific TV podcasts -- focusing on one show or another -- but there isn't a terrific one, updated regularly, that takes a more general view of the medium and its history. That's where we come in.

Every week, Libby Hill and I will be talking about the week that was in TV, classic television and some of the big questions in television, past and present. We'll be doing the show Saturday nights and ideally getting it up sometime early Sunday morning. As we slowly work out the technical aspects, more of your SDD favorites, including Myles McNutt, Carrie Raisler and the brothers Sims, will be joining us. You can visit our LibSyn library here and subscribe to our RSS feed here. We'll be available on iTunes sometime in the middle of this week, and we'll also be up at Podcast Alley and Podcast Pickle around that time as well. If you have another place we should be listed, let us know.

Here's the info for the first episode. If we got something wrong, let us know in comments or via e-mail, and we'll get the correction posted here.

Episode 1: Brain Cancer Ghost Sex

This week's topic, obviously, is Battlestar Galactica's finale, which we discuss in some detail. We also argue about the greatest series finales of all time and offer up our picks for THE BEST and talk at length about shows as diverse as The Office, Dollhouse and Big Love.

A couple of notes: I've discovered JUST HOW WELL my voice picks up on the microphone. I tried to minimize the hard P sounds, but there are still a few hanging around. We'll be better in the future. In addition, most of the clips we've included come out of NOWHERE. We'll introduce them better in episodes to come. We also cranked the audio quality down by about half to minimize the file size (it's a long episode). Let us know if the quality sucks so much that you can't deal with it. Also let us know any other technical problems you spot with the production. We're both new at this.

Here's a direct link to the episode. (Warning: MP3 file.)

Time codes follow. There are MAJOR SPOILERS for a variety of shows, so you may want to skip over a segment if you haven't watched the shows discussed therein.

Times:

00:00.00-00:01.39: Introductions and music from The Airborne Toxic Event
00:01.40-00:11.53: The week's headlines.
00:11.54-00:24.07: A discussion of the BSG finale. (Major BSG spoilers throughout.)
00:24.08-00:46.55: Our picks for the best series finales of all time.
00:46.56-01:11.48: Discussing the week in television. (Includes spoilers for Lost, The Office, 30 Rock, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, How I Met Your Mother, American Idol, Big Love, Kings and Dollhouse. If you guys want more detailed time breakdowns for this segment in the weeks to come, just ask.)
01:11.49-01:19.14: Preview of the week to come and show wrap-up.

Headline links:

Monday and Tuesday ratings (PI Feedback)
Ted Haggard and Wife to Appear on Divorce Court (Beliefnet)
Exclusive: Bones Plots Family Guy Crossover (Entertainment Weekly)
Craig Ferguson Tops Jimmy Fallon (Broadcasting and Cable)
The Tonight Show Is Friendly Turf for President Barack Obama (Hitfix.com)
Loud TV Ads? Not if One Politician Has Her Way (Ad Age)

The song is "Gasoline" by SoCal's own The Airborne Toxic Event. It's readily available on iTunes, as is their self-titled album. Give 'em your hard-earned cash if you like what you hear because it's a great listen.

Corrections:

--You'd think I'd know this by now, but I call him Commander William Adama, when he's been the Admiral for a long time. Doi.

A Podcast Recommendation:

Check out the guys at Battleship Pretension, who aren't quite as scattershot as us but take the same conversational approach to the world of film.

See you next week!


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