Breaking Bad – Making Me Mad

Breaking Bad just ended its fourth season with an explosive finale – I am going to avoid mentioning any of the events that occurred so this will stay spoiler free – I just want to talk about how mad it made me.  Being an avid fan of the show, I had high expectations for this season, but feared that it would not be able to live up to the standard set by the first three.  What made me angry though, is how truly awesome this season’s episodes have been and how I now have to wait until next year for more. But that is not all – Breaking Bad’s qualities remind me of what disappoints so much about other TV shows:  Vince Gilligan (the creator and primary writer) credits his characters with such intelligence and will never take an easy way out to maintain the status quo to prolong the life expectancy of the series.

In a previous piece, the schedule was such that it led to a comparison of Breaking Bad and Entourage – this time the show I watched immediately prior was Dexter – again it is an uneven matchup between the two.  The Showtime series about a serial killer was fantastic to watch in the first season, but success was, in the end, its downfall. Since it became popular, the creators and network understandably want to prolong the run of the show – but this results in never changing the formula and taking no risks with character or plot development.  The supporting cast in Dexter are only there to give some respite to Michael C. Hall in his portrayal of the title anti-hero – in Breaking Bad, those who first appeared to be light relief end up being complex characters and major players in the storyline (such as Hank or Saul).

Who does your hair?

If you examine the synopsis of the series without seeing any episodes, you would expect Bryan Cranston’s Walter White to be a more likeable character than Hall’s Dexter: the former, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer starts cooking meth to provide for his family before his inevitable death; the latter, a serial killer who kills other serial killers.  But the writers go out of their way to make Dexter someone the audience can get behind, whereas there are no such considerations for the protagonist in Breaking Bad.  We all know what Walter has done and at this point he is a fairly unscrupulous guy, yet somehow we’re still rooting for him.

So, Breaking Bad has got me mad, for being so damn good – and soon it will end forever- which is how it should be, but why can’t other shows match its standards? Why has the only series that is better – The Wire, of course – also ended and thus I have no new episodes to anticipate? I have to accept the timely end of these shows- as they peak. If they petered out, like so many once-great shows (can you say The West Wing or 24), or if there was talk of a movie, or a new season (a la Arrested Development) their integrity would be compromised. Breaking Bad is so well written, well acted, superbly scored and keeps me guessing in all the right ways – I’m already missing it.

Pan-Am: Mad Men with Wings – without story or characters

Pan Am-bien

When ABC announced they were making a 60s “period drama” of Pan-Am – the former American airline which suffered a tragic demise after a terrorist bomb took down one of their planes over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 – it was compared in previews to the critically acclaimed AMC series, Mad Men.  While that show is also set in the 1960s, the story revolving around an advertising agency, the period aspect of the show has always been used to enhance the story line, Pan Am relies on this as the basis of the show.

At Sterling Cooper (Draper Price) the Civil Rights movement, Kennedy assassination and equal rights for women are all used as ways to develop the overall plot and for character developments, not as the entire show itself.  Pan Am does try to suggest some history for the characters – be it two sisters on the same flight crew, one of whom ran from her wedding and was then used as the cover girl on Life magazine, the other who is jealous of that fame and is herself helping a government agent, or a flight attendant who is confronted with her lover bringing his wife and son onto the flight – but this is not the focus of the show. All that the new ABC show is interested in showing is the differences between then and now. From the excitement over a new plane even the pilots are showing, the new Polaroid camera that a couple of passengers are eager to show off (“It develops the picture right inside it!”), the pilots and flight attendants walking through the airport to the awe of impressed passengers and people smoking on a plane – the entire hour seemed to be based around things that happened in the 60s that would not occur in the present day.  Apparently Pan American Airways did not have a coach section either, as all of the flight part of the show focused solely on the first class cabin.

It is hard to judge new shows based solely on their first shows – there is a lot of introduction and back story that happens in order to give exposure to all of the characters and themes the show hopes to follow – but Pan Am seemed particularly clunky and awkward at this process also.  Everyone was asking to be reminded of other people’s names and there were flashbacks a la Lost, only without the intrigue (indeed this being on the same network as Lost – the plane that relayed the message to the captain about the missing stewardess was “Gander Oceanic” – Oceanic 815 being the flight from the previous show and Gander being a synonym for looking for something that is Lost).  The score of the show, composed by Blake Neeley, was clearly designed to give it a grandiose feel – reaching crescendos on both the take off in the opening montage and the “heroic” escape from Cuba during the Bay of Pigs – but the music ended up just being distracting rather, as opposed to adding to the mood of the show.

To be fair, Pan Am did one good thing with its opening show.  Sundays were becoming jam-packed: Breaking Bad is reaching the climax of another fantastic season; Boardwalk Empire returned this Sunday, along with The Simpsons and Family Guy; Dexter is back next week with the promise of the show taking a new direction.  With so much to choose from on one night of television, it is almost a relief to be able to check out from Pan Am.

Breaking Bad vs Entourage

I acknowledge that it is not fair to compare these two shows; Breaking Bad is a serious drama, which has just aired three episodes unparalleled by any show other than The Wire, whereas Entourage is a light comedy that peaked in Season Two and has been devoid of new ideas ever since.  Nevertheless, they have shared a time slot over the last few weeks and last night the contrast between them could not have been any more pronounced.

The series finale of Entourage ended exactly as everyone expected it world, with things working out for all of the characters: Turtle is a millionaire; Johnny Drama’s career is actually active and he has two projects on the go; Ari is back with his wife and they decide to move to Florence (which is now by the ocean, apparently); E and Sloane are back together and having a baby; Lloyd is a real agent with his own client; and, most ridiculously of all, Vince is getting married after one date with a woman who had previously shown nothing but indifference towards him – the 24 hour courtship completely unseen by the viewers. (For the record, I do not consider any of this a spoiler, because even the characters in the show commented on how everything always works out for them.)  The very final scene, where Charles Widmore from Lost offers his own job to Ari, was just a way to reboot back to the status quo in time for the inevitable movie that will follow.

Life's easy when everything always works out for you

On-screen actions bear no consequences on Entourage, and indeed, most of T.V land.  This is just the nature of the majority of shows; the audience demands neat, satisfactory endings for their favourite characters.   The West Wing had us believe the American people would elect a President with Multiple Sclerosis, even if he had hidden that very important piece of information during his first campaign.  Dexter reboots every season to ensure the same formula persists each year, with nobody figuring out the main character’s secret unless they are to be quickly dispatched.  Networks are afraid to change something that is working, so they milk an idea for as long as they can and provide the audience with positive, all be it unrealistic, outcomes.

Well, not always – in the best shows, this is not the case.  The Wire did not adhere to this principal, was much more true to life and showed the consequences of even the smallest action. (I could go on, but I already wrote a long love-letter to The Wire, which can be found here)  Breaking Bad never forgets characters’ actions, nor does it take the easy way out.  (If you are not fully up to date with Breaking Bad, watch it before reading on, Seasons 1-3 are now on Netflix Instant).

Breaking Bad’s protagonist, Walter White, is a bad guy – this much we know.  He has done abhorrent things throughout the series, and I’m not even referring to the cooking of meth.  Allowing Jane to die (in fact, being the reason she did) is perhaps tied with forcing Jesse to kill Gale for the worst of his actions, but the most despicable act came in last night’s episode “Bug”.  Jesse  stood up for ‘Mr. White’, telling Gus that if he was to kill Walt, he would have to kill him too.  He has always shown loyalty, yet Walter still does not trust him, has bugged his car, and then berates him for failing to murder their boss.  The fight between the two was just saddening. Jesse and Walt make unlikely partners, but they have been through so much together, and are in such a perilous position, that watching them turn on each other was genuinely painful.  It says a lot about the no-holds-barred nature of the show that, at one point when Walt reached into his pocket, I expected him to be pulling out the gun he had bought at the beginning of the second episode of this season to actually shoot Jesse.  The last time we saw the two of them fight, in the much missed Winnebago-slash-meth-lab, the clash ended with them checking if each other was okay.  Last night, Jesse asks if Walt can walk, then tells him “get the fuck out and don’t ever come back”.

Another character’s misdeed returns with consequences in “Bug”, when Ted Beneke reappears with an investigation by the CID in tow. Skyler, who we witnessed laundering money moments before Ted’s arrival in the car wash, is now faced with being audited herself due to her connection to the Beneke accounts.  Ted needs more than $600k to pay off his back taxes and is clearly unable to afford it himself.  Not paying means that the scrutiny of the CID will remain and be widened to include his supposedly unqualified accountant. It is fairly certain Skyler will give Ted the money but we are left to wonder if she will tell him where it came from and/or tell Walter that she’s giving away money he has “earned”.  Considering her revelations in the season 3 episode “I.F.T” (Skyler tells him “I Fucked Ted”), it is unlikely Walt will be in favour of such a move – although his pride might encourage him to be the one to bail out his wife’s former lover, so long as Ted knows he generated the money and nobody else.

Everyone is thinking on this show, and no stone is left unturned – when Hank retrieves the information from his tracking device that had been on Gus’ car, he does not retreat when it shows nothing more than a home to work commute and back

Hank Scharder - Natural pOlice

again for the entire week, Agent Schrader recognises the suspiciousness in this all too unsuspicious pattern.  Further digging has led him to the distribution centre, resulting in a thorough cleaning operation for Mike, Jesse and, fatally, thanks to the cartel, another of Gus’ employees.  When he finds nothing there, expect Hank to discover the existence of the laundry factory, where the super meth lab is.  Hank may play the fool and sing along to “Eye of the Tiger” in the car, but there is no doubting his expert investigative instincts. He is a formidable opponent for Gus, Mike, and indeed his brother-in-law, Walter. I, for one, cannot wait for this to play out to its inevitably messy but brilliant end.

Two shows, one where all the characters make dumb decisions with no consequences, the other that credits its players with great intelligence, and leaves no action without an often horrible reaction.

This week in: TV

There are three exciting shows to talk about this, two returning and one in the middle of an absolutely breathtaking season of television.

First off – Sons of Anarchy (FX, Tuesdays 10pm) returns on September 6th for its fourth season.  For those new to the show, the story centres on Jax Teller and his motorcycle club (the titular Sons of Anarchy).  Initially styling itself as “Hamlet on Motorcycles”, last season veered from this premise with a trip to Belfast and encounters with the Irish Republican Army. This year promises to return to the more familiar strife of Charming, CA, SAMCRO’s (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club – Redwood Original) hometown. Finale apart, the third season was clearly the weakest for the show thus far, so a return to Charming and hopefully a return to form, is much anticipated.

(If you have not yet seen SOA, Netflix has the first two seasons available on its Instant Streaming feature)

Tonight, Tuesday September 6th, also sees the return from a two week haitus of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central 11pm) – which has become the go-to source for anyone wanting to cut through the propaganda of other news organisations.  During the time The Daily Show was off the air, New York City (where it is filmed) has experienced an earthquake and a tropical storm/hurricane.  Meanwhile the race for the GOP Nomination has heated up with “George Bush III”, Rick Perry now leading Soap Opera’s very own, Mitt Romney in the polls and reality TV star Palin still neither officially in or out.  Needless to say, there is plenty for them to catch up on.

Sunday, September 11th, sees the latest episode of Breaking Bad (AMC, Sundays 10pm).  I’m hesitant to say too much, as I know not many people have been watching the show, but this season has once again been unbelievably brilliant.  The show

Heisenberg AKA Walter White

follows Walter White (played by the amazing Bryan Cranston who has won an Emmy for every year he has been eligible in this role) as a Chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth in order to provide for his family after being diagnosed with lung cancer.  While Walt is the main character, the supporting cast is absolutely incredible – Dean Norris (Walt’s DEA agent Brother-in-Law, Hank) and Aaron Paul (Walt’s partner in crime, Jesse) have put in particularly stunning performances in recent weeks.  This show is unmissable. If you have not seen it, order the first three seasons and watch them right now.  You will want to be ready for the final 16 episodes which start next year.  Have you ordered them yet? Do you need the link?  In the UK? Okay then go here.  Just do it, trust me!

I do hope that season 5 starts with lawyer “Better Call” Saul suing Sarah Palin for stealing the design of his office for her mega-bus tour…

Sarah Palin's bus
Saul Goodman's office