An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Breaking Bad is groundbreaking, in a lot of ways. It does things that not even the canonical HBO dramas have done. And it does so while COMPLETELY OWNING YOUR FUCKING ASS with raw, unflinching, dark-night-of-the-soul brutality and despair and excitement and humor and horrible/beautiful humanity. And all that on basic cable!

Some stuff that the show does uniquely well:

Pacing. This is a show that knows how to take its time. The writers balance the occasional big, plot-advancing, high-drama episodes of nightmarish intensity (usually involving bloodshed of some kind) with lower-key episodes that slow everything way down and zoom in on the characters, their relationships and their internal lives. Even in plot-momentum episodes they're not afraid to keep the pace measured and deliberate. Other shows may have taken similar tacks, but none have pulled it off this gracefully; partly due to the pacing, Breaking Bad often feels more like great theater, or like an art film, than a television show.

Visuals. Many recent dramas have showcased excellent writing, but few, if any, have prioritized visual storytelling. Breaking Bad benefits from top-notch directors who find ways to tell the story in visual terms to complement the writers' verbal ones, and cinematographers who seize on the sun-baked loveliness of the New Mexico landscape in contrast with the human ugliness on display in the writing and acting. Several episodes have experimented with jazzy editing tricks and varied film stocks in kinetic montage sequences. Breaking Bad is perhaps the only TV show I've ever seen that looks and feels truly cinematic.

Characters and acting. Okay, so lots of shows have complex characters and deep performances, but none that I know of are as single-minded about developing and penetrating a character. As played with can't-look-away intensity by Bryan Cranston, Walt is a fascinating riff on the anti-heroes that have driven many of the big dramas: Al Swearengen, Vic Mackey, Tony Soprano, et al. But the writers here never really ask us to root for Walt as he descends into a hell of deception and criminality, or to identify with him, or to place us in a what-would-you-do moral quandary. The show doesn't make excuses for Walt other than the excuses he makes, unconvincingly, for himself. Instead it studies him, gazing with fascination at his increasingly corrupted soul. Throw in the outstanding Aaron Paul as Walt's reluctant young partner-in-meth, and a host of interesting supporting characters—including, in a recent addition, the great Bob Odenkirk as a crooked lawyer—and you're really, um, "cooking."

Termite Art, motherfuckers. I would argue that even the best TV dramas up to this point have fallen more or less under Manny Farber's designation of White Elephant Art. Deadwood and The Wire are sweeping, grandiose epics that take on the topics of, respectively, the forging and breakdown of American society. Breaking Bad has none of that grandiosity. It's about moments, and sometimes-mundane reality, and people dealing with bad situations in real time. And within that framework they find room for stuff like, oh, the decapitated head of Danny Trejo strapped to a turtle wired with a bomb. I call that having your cake and eating it too, and I say hats off to the show's creative team for pulling it off.

Did I mention the show is also really funny sometimes? The point is this is the dopest fucking shit you will see on television or even at the movies for that matter. Even when Don Draper and his merry band of morally challenged visitors from the 20th century return in August, they will take a fucking backseat to the absolute undisputed ownage of Breaking Bad.

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