Thursday, July 29, 2010

You Should Be Watching: Breaking Bad

The problem with living in a Golden Age is that you very rarely realise that one is upon you until it has passed. With the constant doom-mongering about the death of most traditional media in the face of a new digital future - nary a week goes by that you won't find an article somewhere proclaiming the death of cinema/the album/the novel/the cotton gin - you would be forgiven for thinking that all culture is in a endless spiral of entropy.

Whilst the aforementioned doom-mongering is, by and large, bullshit, the one medium that everyone agrees is flourishing is television, which over the last decade has emerged from the shadow of cinema to assert itself as the most exhilarating, inventive and entertaining artform going, one capable of delivering visceral thrills and intellectual stimulation, often within the same hour.

Navigating the cultural landscape can be tricky; it's a desert with a few tiny oases spread thinly about the place. With this new feature, which will run over the summer to take advantage of the recent Emmy nominations and the relative lull in the schedules, will help anyone interested in seeking out some new entertainment, and will hopefully generate some knowing, appreciative nods from fellow travellers familiar with the terrain.

We'll kick things off with probably the best show currently on television, Breaking Bad.

In the very first episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher struggling to support his family, discovers that he has terminal lung cancer. Though this would be devastating for most people, for Walt it's just the latest in a long line of indignities and shattered dreams. A handful of scenes before Walter's fateful trip to see his doctor do an economical job of establishing the little humiliations that give Walter just cause to hate his life.

A formerly prodigious chemist who seemed destined for great things, he wound up teaching at a school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as well as working a degrading second job at a local car wash where he is demeaned by the kids he tries to teach, and has to look on as his friends and relatives, including his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), enjoy far greater success. Facing certain death, Walter 'breaks bad', in the parlance of the show, and decides to use his knowledge of chemistry to become a methamphetamine cook in the hopes that he will be able to earn enough money to provide for his family after he is gone.

In order to enter the world of meth cooking and dealing, Walter (going under the alias of Heisenberg) enlists his former pupil, now moderately successful small time meth dealer, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). With Walter's ability to create top quality product, and Jesse's knowledge of the drug trade, the two expect to see a quick, easy return for their work. But things don't turn out that way; as in all experiments, there are variables, and much of the show is spent showing how Walter and Jesse deal with these variables, be they a psychotic local kingpin who takes offense to Heisenberg encroaching on his business, Hank sniffing around when he learns that a high quality and distinct blue meth is being sold in his town, or Walter's wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) asking too many questions and threatening to tear apart the double-life Walter constructs for himself.

Breaking Bad distinguished itself from pretty much its first frame by displaying a scope and ambition that is rare for television. The show is filmed entirely in and around the New Mexico locations of its story, a rarity in television, and this allows the show's directors to take full advantage of the grand, desolate vistas of the surrounding deserts, so often the location for Walt and Jesse's cooking sessions, and which form the background for pretty much the whole series. It's a show that, week-in and week-out, not only looks like a film - as a lot of high end television does these days - but feels like one, too, and the visual storytelling of Breaking Bad is unsurpassed by any show currently on the air. You just have to look at the opening sequence, which climaxes with the now iconic shot of Walter standing in his underwear, gun in hand, preparing to take on the approaching police, to see the skill with which the show evokes Walt's turmoil. Or take any of the show's fantastic 'boiler room' episodes, in which two characters are forced to spend all or most of an episode in one enclosed space, to see how well the show builds simmering tension and atmosphere from the smallest situations. If Anthony Mann were working in television now, I like to think he'd want to work on Breaking Bad.

Of the shows I'll be writing about for this feature, Breaking Bad has probably had the toughest road to greatness. Its first season was meant to be thirteen episodes, but wound up being cut short by the 2007 WAG strike, and creator Vince Gilligan and his team could only put out seven episodes before the strike took effect. What's worse, the truncated season ended in a very uncertain place that, whilst interesting, did not really make good on the previous six episodes and the world Gilligan had so carefully created.

The strike turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, since at least one major plot point that would have led to a very different show wound up being abandoned, and the show returned for a second, full season that began to move away from the "Walt learns something new about the drug trade, Jesse learns something about science, the two have to find a solution to a practical issue" structure that defined a lot of the first season towards a much richer vein of storytelling, one more focused on the compromises Walt was willing to make in order to stay in business and the consequences that spiraled out from his decisions. It also experimented with narrative by starting most episodes with future events to which the rest of the episode would build, or that the whole season would gradually lead to.

The shift to exploring murkier territory could have taken away from the fun of the show's central premise, but wound up enriching it, as the tensions between Walt - who always disapproved of Jesse's drug habit - and Jesse - who spends much of the second season in a drug-fuelled haze - came to the fore. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul really upped the ante in the second season, taking the relatively good-humoured relationship that gave the first much of its spark and pushing it to its limits, showing us how these two men would be inexorably drawn towards each other for reasons of mutual self-interest, even if they might come to hate each other as a result. The wit and humour were still there, but now they served a different, better kind of storytelling.

Breaking Bad is one of the best examples of the evolutionary nature of television, in that it has grown and improved over time in the way that only television allows. This is most apparent in the way in which the actors have been able to find new depth and nuance in their characters over three seasons, and the way in which characters that were only on the periphery in Season One have become integral to the emotional landscape of the show by the end of Season Three.

Take, for example, Walt's brother-in-law Hank. When Hank was introduced in the Pilot, he was a bullish, shit-kicking cop very much in the mold of The Shield's Vic Mackey, albeit one who has hasn't constructed an elaborate web of lies and evil around himself. (Given the physical similarity between Dean Norris and Michael Chiklis, I have to think that this connection is not just coincidental.) Over the course of the series, Norris has turned Hank from a fairly standard cop stereotype into a compelling and sympathetic character; he's a man who puts on a blustery front for his men, but who is much more fragile than he would ever let on. If you had told me at the start of the show that Hank would develop into one of the best characters on the show, I wouldn't have thought it possible. Such is the magic of television, and this show in particular.

Speaking of the supporting cast, it'd be remiss of me not to mention Anna Gunn and Bob Odenkirk, who play Skylar White and Saul Goodman, Walt's sleazy criminal lawyer (a lawyer who is a criminal, as opposed to a lawyer who merely represents criminals) respectively.

For the first two seasons, Gunn was limited in her portrayal of Skylar by the fact that she was kept in the dark about Walt's activities. She was always good in the role, and she and Cranston did fine work portraying a marriage in crisis which still functions, but her best work has come in this past season, when she has started to get a glimpse at what Walt has been up to and has had to come to terms with the way in which her world has profoundly changed. She's one of the most interesting female characters on television.

Odenkirk, meanwhile, is just a blast. He joined the show in season two as an occasional guest star but is pretty much a core cast member at this point and is easily the funniest part of the show. Playing the crooked lawyer's crooked lawyer, Odenkirk revels in the chance to be unrelentingly oily and despicable every week. It's a career-defining performance - and that's saying something when Odenkirk has already had a great career - which adds a much needed blast of pure comedy into a show that occasionally gets low on laughs.

If I were to use one word to describe Breaking Bad, it would be "volatile." It's one of the most unpredictable shows going, but it's one whose surprises always make perfect sense and can be dizzying in their disregard for the expectations of televised storytelling. For example, in the first episode of the third season, we are introduced to a pair of mysterious twins who, it is established in a bizarre and Fellini-esque opening, are out to kill Walter. Now, you expect their pursuit of Walter to be a major part of the season and for it to be a plot strand that the show stretches out for a great length of time, but the show pulls the rug out by having them find Walt in the second episode.

It's a simple but profoundly disorientating trick that the show employed beautifully throughout its third season, a season which ranks as one of the best thirteen episodes of television I have ever seen. Breaking Bad took everything it had done so well in Season One and Two - compelling characters, witty dialogue, a willingness to experiment with form and structure - and took them as far as they could go, delivering exhilarating, disturbing and surprising storytelling that didn't waste a single frame (unless you're one of the people who didn't like the episode "Fly") in taking Walt and Jesse deeper into the moral morass that they had gotten themselves lost in. Breaking Bad is, ultimately, the story of one man's pursuit of money and power, and the lengths he will go to in order to achieve that. It's a profoundly American story, and its scope and ambition have already established it as one of the great shows in television history, and the creative team haven't even really started yet.

If you only watch one episode...

The trade off of rich serialised storytelling is that it's hard to choose one episode to recommend; whilst some episodes might stand out, you need the full weight and knowledge of the preceding story to understand the significance of what is going on. It's like starting a book on chapter twelve. I'm tempted to just say start with the Pilot, which is very good, and go from there.

However, if I were to pick just one, I'd go for "One Minute" from Season Three, which deals with the fallout of Hank, who has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, attacking Jesse and getting suspended from the police force. The first forty minutes are indicative of the show at its best, with plenty of time given to the strong supporting cast and an emphasis on just how adrift everyone is in their own problems, but what really sets it apart is its last five minutes, which feature some of the most heart-stopping action I have seen on television. I don't want to ruin what happens, but it's pretty amazing because it pushes the boundaries of what a television show - which, by its nature, has a much shorter production time than a feature film - can do in terms of thrills, suspense and tension. Everything the show does well, it does at its best in One Minute.

Breaking Bad Seasons One and Two are currently available on DVD, Season Three is no doubt available through other means.