Friday, November 4, 2011

TV Roundup: Breaking Bad

While its more famous and popular older brother Mad Men* gets most of the attention from AMC’s crop of original programming, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is quietly putting an astonishingly high-quality. In fact, I’m going to make a bold claim: Breaking Bad is the best thing I’ve seen on television since The Wire ended its run in 2008.** Having seen up through the third season of this amazing show, I want to talk a little about it. Hard as it’s going to be, I will refrain from spoilers.

*Which, to be fair, I have yet to see. Other critically acclaimed series I’ve missed over the last five years or so (for a point of reference in my praise) include Terriers, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Homeland, The Good Wife and latter seasons of Lost and The Shield.

**Although Seasons Two and Three of Breaking Bad might actually be better than the last season of The Wire, meaning it’s the best show I’ve seen since 2006

The show’s title is a reference to the main thesis of the series, which is an attempt to answer the question of how (and maybe more importantly why) a good man begins to compromise his morals (or “break bad” in street slang). The series is, at its core, the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Walt’s life is mired in a rut—a former Nobel winner, bad luck and personal failings have led him to a dead end life as a lower-middle class public school teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His younger wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) is unexpectedly pregnant with the couple’s second child (she’s pushing forty, him fifty), and the couple already has a 16 year old son with Cerebral Palsy who needs caring for. To pay the bills, Walt has taken a second job at a car wash, where he is humiliated by his boss and forced to wash the cars of his own students. So when he receives the news that he has a particularly deadly form of lung cancer and has maybe a year live, something inside Walt snaps.

In order to provide for his family after his passing, Walt decides he needs to make some money, quickly. When his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) brings Walt on a ride-along to a drug arrest, Walt decides that the best way to make some quick cash is to apply his mastery of chemistry to drug manufacturing—specifically of crystal meth. But although Walt can make meth easily enough, he hasn’t the slightest idea of how one goes about selling it. To get around this, Walt tracks down a junkie ex-student named Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to go into business with him. Thus begins Walt’s steady descent down a path that grows increasingly dark and violent.

Breaking Bad falls somewhere in the middle on the sliding scale of character study versus plot-centered story. It has true leads and spends the vast majority of time with a select few characters (unlike The Wire), but also has a lot more narrative thrust and cohesion than something like The Sopranos. And it’s a medium that works very, very well.

At its core, Breaking Bad is the story of Walter. Maybe the most fascinating character to ever grace the small screen, the journey that Walt travels is both fantastic and utterly, disturbingly logical. The layers this character displays are truly amazing (although weather he’s a parfait or an onion is open to debate). Walt begins the show as an emasculated, milquetoast professional failure, but it doesn’t take long for the audience to see how dangerous he can be—in fact, he creates an entire alter ego (Heisenberg, complete with badass fedora and later goatee) to channel this part him. Walt is an incredibly loving husband and father—which is why he gets into the drug game in the first place—but he is also a tremendously proud man, often to his and his family’s detriment. He is brilliantly smart, but he is also inexperienced and naïve about how the drug business works, and some of the people he encounters in the game are as smart as he but much more knowledgeable and ruthless. Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring (who is basically what Stringer Bell aspired to be) is particularly chilling. And this is really just the beginning of the depth of this character.

And the great thing about this show is that the other main players* are all almost as interesting (with the notable exception of Skyler’s sister and Hank’s wife Marie, at least through three seasons). Even the characters that initially start out as comic relief, like Hank and later Saul Goodman (Bob Oedenkirk) are extraordinarily fleshed out over time. The place where Hank ends after the third season seems almost incompatible with his initial characterization—but watching the show, it isn’t at all. I could devote multiple paragraphs to each of these people—and to their various relationships (Jesse and Walt’s is particularly interesting)—but I’ll spare you that for now.

*In rough order of importance, the other main characters are Jesse, Skyler, Hank, and later Gus, Jane, Saul, and Mike.

And the story of the show is no less impressive than the characters. Although the first season is a little disjointed (mostly due to only having seven episodes because of the Writer’s Strike), the intricately plotted season two and the hectic, breathless season three (which Gilligan proudly admits was made up almost completely by the seat of the writers’ pants) are both utterly fascinating and endlessly engaging. The show blends genuine pathos, a dark sense of humor, and an almost unbelievably high Holy Shit Quotient* into a truly impressive whole.

*The HSQ being the number of times per episode the series does something so outrageous—both awesome and horrifying count—that makes you say “holy shit” out loud. Breaking Bad shatter the unofficial record previously held by Rome.

All of this is made possible not only by the outstanding writing, but also by the impeccable performances. Although the acting is uniformly impressive (even the one poorly written character, Marie, is still acted well), Aaron Paul and especially Bryan Cranston stand out. I’ve already described Walt at length, and none of that characterization would be remotely possible without Cranston’s amazing performance. Although I make fun of the Emmys all the time, I do have to tip my hat to their recognition of Cranston, who has won in all three years he’s been eligible—and that’s against competition like Jon Hamm, Hugh Laurie, and Michael C. Hall. The show gives all of these marvelously talented performers great material, and they all knock it out of the park*.

* I joked once that I think Gilligan casts people mainly on their ability to deliver a killer monologue (pun intended, in some instances), which even minor characters get a chance to do on occasion.

And while the show certainly takes itself seriously when it needs to (the penultimate episode of season two is worthy of George Pelecanos), the show also has a bit more humor than some of its other lofty dramatic brethren. Comedy setpieces (albeit usually dark ones) are more common, and the show is willing to play around with its presentation in a way that The Wire, for example, never would. Much of this comes along during the often very creative pre-credit sequences, during which Gilligan and co like to experiment. The show puts in flashbacks, foreshadowing, stylized camerawork, and once even a mariachi music video. The show also milks the location shoots in New Mexico for all they’re worth, and is one to watch in HD if at all possible.

The one real flaw with the show, thus far anyway, is that the writers tend to shy away from some of the consequences of Walt and Jesse’s actions. And I don’t mean on their respective friends and families—that’s shown in brutal detail, and the show makes it clear that Walt’s journey from awkward, bumbling teacher to Scarface is a descent, and not in any way admirable. But with one notable exception, we really don’t see how the ever increasing meth operation affects the addicts and junkies. One of the conceits of the show, after all, is that Walt’s application of his brilliant chemistry to the creation of meth results in a particularly potent (read: addictive) brand. We see the personal and business consequences, and the violence that comes from dealing meth not far from the Mexican border. But there is nothing like the scenes of Hamsterdam from season 3 of the Wire*. It makes the show’s portrayal of Walt as a good guy (which it does less and less as the show goes on) just a little bit artificial.

*That is, by the way, my seventh reference to The Wire in this review. View that as a very high compliment.

The show also, largely due to budgetary reasons, doesn’t have a particularly broad scope. Sometimes it seems as if Albuquerque (the main setting) has about ten people in it, although the show is getting better at this. Part of the problem was probably the truncated first season, which hurt the show’s momentum and made it a little difficult for Gilligan to quickly expand the story.

Thirty-three episodes in*, Breaking Bad has already entered the TV drama pantheon, eclipsing shows like Rome, Deadwood and The Sopranos and rivaling Friday Night Lights and The West Wing. That’s damn impressive, and I can’t wait to see more.

*And yes, the fourth season, which I have yet to see, has already aired, potentially rendering much of this moot. If so, just think of this as a review of the first three seasons.

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