Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin

Apart from “The Simpsons”, I never thought much about television growing up. I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in cable and that also didn’t believe that a functioning roof antenna was a necessity. Therefore, the TV I knew as a child–beamed into my family’s 80s era Trinitron’s bunny ear antenna–was limited to statically impaired versions of PBS, FOX, Chicago’s old UPN Power 50, NBC, ABC, WGN, and on a good day CBS, depending on wind and humidity.

PBS was forced on me by my mother as being the only channel worth watching it being the Brussels sprouts of television for a boy in grade school. FOX provided “The Simpsons,” the only show my father allowed my sister and me to enjoy every Thursday night much to my mother’s dismay, but also unleashed a plethora of mind-numbing pre-reality TV reality shows with snuff as the central themes. Titles like “When Animals Attack 3,” “World’s Deadliest Swarms,” “When Stunts Go Bad,” “Cheating Death: Catastrophes Caught on Tape,” and “World’s Scariest Police Shootouts” provided more than enough reason to censor our intake of television other than PBS.

UPN was the network for trash TV–re-runs of the A-Team, syndicated Montel Williams, silly Saturday morning cartoons, WWF Wrestling absurdities, etc. NBC’s “Seinfeld” was a show I didn’t truly appreciate till after it began syndication post-its heavily scorned swan song finale.

My parents did, however, bring us up on a multitude of different films, schooling us on all genres and snippets of film history. My father’s early seminars on horror films began with the early Universal monster movies–Frankenstein, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon–and ended somewhere between Freddy Krueger and The Re-animator, a film that although full of dark humor, shouldn’t be shown to a boy in middle school.

We were screened foreign classics, contemporary blockbusters and sleepy indies. It got to the point that our TV was merely a vehicle for the handful of VHS cassettes we would rent every weekend. The content of its broadcasting failed to garner any interest for most of my adolescence.

Today the timely phrase being passed around the “water cooler” and the blogosphere is that we are living in a new “Golden Age” of television.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times recently ventured outside of his role as chief film critic to comment on the rising quality of serialized television being made today and how film as a medium is losing its creative edge. His article entitled, “Are Films Bad, or Is TV Just Better?”, while primarily focusing on the film industries’ struggles at the box office, does eventually get to the heart of this belief. It raises an interesting question about televisions role in the motion picture arts: is television the better medium for storytelling in this new environment?

Ask anyone interested in this topic and most will tell you that this wave of quality television programming–shows that broke away from the conventions of the previous television mindset and took risks that film could never accomplish–began with HBO’s landmark series, “The Sopranos.”

On a good Sunday night it was true that “The Sopranos” aired episodes that provided more intrigue as well as good old fashioned entertainment than most films being released at the time.

Here was an original series that revolved around a vile human being who we as viewers couldn’t help but love and relate to. The notion of making the anti-hero the hero was a big step for modern television, though in reality it didn’t solely start with David Chase’s Jersey mob opus.

HBO’s prison drama, “Oz” premiered a year before we watched Tony Soprano enter his shrink’s office for the first time on television. That show only found a niche audience but managed to remain on the air for a six-season run. It is this series that truly revolutionized what I see as television’s new wave.

Like “The Sopranos,” “Oz” trumpeted the rise of the anti-hero. The inmates at the Oswald State Correctional Facility came from the dregs of society¬–murderers, drug dealers, rapists, neo-Nazi hate-mongers, and so on. Still the series managed the feat of making the characters intriguing, no matter how horrible their actions might be. It also took an otherwise boring and fairly routine setting (the inside of a prison ward where not much goes on) and created a world as intricate as anything you might read in the halls of epic literature.

What it did well was parade the average nobody and still draw in the audience. It is this idea that is the root of this so-called golden age.

Sure someone like Tony Soprano is a larger than life kind of character but at his core he’s just another guy trying to make a buck in America. The show draws us in close enough to relate to his everyday pains but also shows us the monstrous side creating a very complicated relationship between the viewer and the protagonist. But let’s move beyond “The Sopranos” to the other major shows in the past decade where this Golden Age has been blossoming.

Take HBO’s post-“OZ/Sopranos” lineup: there’s “Six Feet Under,” which, generally speaking, took a suburban family of undertakers and made their lives captivating; “The Wire” used a dying American city as its protagonist, focusing on its social institutions for intrigue and creating memorable characters out of crack addicts, narcotics officers, drug kingpins, school teachers, beat reporters and stevedores, the forgotten side of society; “Treme” chronicles the lives of everyday working Jazz musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans; and even “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” based on the improvisations of real people put in fictionalized settings, furthered the notion that nothing can be everything.

Today two of television’s most talked about and riveting series, AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” follow this now tried and true formula: take otherwise ordinary individuals and uncover the intrigue.

“Mad Men” is flashy with its period piece costumes and historical winks and nods, but at its core it’s still a television show about advertising executives and copywriters working in a Manhattan office, which on paper doesn’t scream successful television.

“Breaking Bad” follows the downward spiral of an average high school chemistry teacher in a seemingly average part of the country (the series somehow takes an otherwise forgettable Albuquerque, New Mexico and makes its setting fascinating) entering a world of crime.

What’s most striking about both of these series, which came from a network known for syndicated classic films rather than quality television series, is that ten years ago they probably would never have found a home on the air.

For the longest time, original television series were limited to a set content standard that revolved around the idea that singular episodes tell a story from beginning to end. A “Law and Order” cop catches a case, goes through the motions to solve it, and eventually closes said case. A sitcom follows a group of characters living in the surreal version of reality it is trying to emulate, aiming to grab a certain amount of laughs between each commercial break. The best word to describe television throughout most of its existence is routine.

Sure there were exceptions to the trap of routine along the way but most were short-lived moments of greatness or shows that started strong but slowly depreciated over time.

“Twin Peaks” was incredibly original for its time and managed to draw viewers into the otherwise boring setting of a sleepy Pacific Northwest town, but its spike in popularity and mysterious nature ultimately led to its premature demise thanks to a network pressure to appease the masses and the premature departure of David Lynch during the series’ second final season.

Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” was rooted in cyclical routine but had layered storylines and character arcs that were perfect for garnering a cult following. Though it suffered from possibly too much layering of conspiracy theory related webs and was on the air for far too long.

With HBO’s slow-burn foray into original programming, television was suddenly treated as a place to give visionary writers and filmmakers all the time they need to truly tell the story they wanted to tell. For the first time ever, television creators weren’t limited to 24 or 48 minute brackets of time to tell a story. With HBO great storytelling was no longer held back by censorship or notions of “bad taste” (and really, who is to say what is deemed ‘bad taste’ these days with daytime talk shows and reality TV).

The ways we as viewers soak up television has also changed how the medium has transformed over the years. Advertising no longer dictates what we watch on TV since technological advancements allow us to avoid the advertising methods of yesteryears all together.

DVD enabled us to soak up entire shows in small amounts of time, following more closely the details and buildups that one often misses with week-to-week viewing schedules. The Internet allows for shows to be experienced uncensored and sans commercial breaks and even allows shows to venture outside the realms of simple episodic television by creating webisodes, online forums for discussion, and interactive websites to coincide with the storytelling.

The question that arises though is whether or not this influx of television is a good thing. Are we watching too much television? Is this yet another distraction in a long list of sectors of popular culture drawing us away from the outdoors, away from the great books, or more traditional pursuits of knowledge? The answer to this depends solely on the viewer.

I for one am enamored by the wave of quality writing and film making coming out of the truly great series on television (and to be fair there is still a lot of crap out there). While film is far from the state of irrelevance, it’s hard to deny that television, as a visual medium, gives artists more room to stretch their ideas. The depths to which “The Wire” took viewers and the messages it managed to spread through its five seasons and 60+ hours of storytelling is unprecedented in the filmmaking world. The show took its cues from great literary devices (beautifully structured character arcs, multiple points of view, and even contemporary, well-respected authors) and created its own world, with all the highs, lows and complications that make reality so intriguing.

On the other hand, there is the notion that we as consumers rely too much on the media. A creative spree is always a good thing but as a viewer it’s difficult to decide how to spend one’s time. Between the great novels to read, films to screen, albums to listen to, journalistic endeavors to be privy to, and now television series to soak up, it’s increasingly more difficult to find time to just be.

It’s hard to say if this wave of original television will reach a tipping point, or at the very least, a moment when there just isn’t anything of worth to watch. Until then it surprisingly comforting to know that there are a number of upcoming original series and returning shows to look forward to. HBO’s prohibition era gangster epic, “Boardwalk Empire,” the return of “Breaking Bad” after it’s season three cliffhanger, AMC’s zombie gamble series, “The Walking Dead,” a second season for David Simon’s New Orleans’ love note, “Treme,” and most likely some surprises along the way.

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Television Review: Breaking Bad


Television Review:
Breaking Bad
Created by Vince Gilligan
The Complete First Season
AMC, Episodes 1-7

Shows like AMC’s surprise hit Breaking Bad beg the question, where else can television take viewers? 

Ten years ago it might seem absurd to believe that an audience would actually reserve time out of their daily grind for a show revolving around the cooking and dealing of Crystal Meth. Then again the same could be said about any number of mind boggling reality shows being churned out every year (how bout’ the short-lived 2008 dating series Farmer Wants a Wife, which is fairly self-explanatory). 

In the rapidly advancing television arena that gave viewers anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, or the testosterone fueled series Rescue Me, the mind numbingly complicated Lost, etc. etc. a show focusing on a flawed but empathetic family man cooking up meth is somehow not only tolerable but viewed as riveting dark humor. 

This is not to say there is something morally outrageous with a show revolving around a detrimental drug like meth, since one can find drama in just about any branch of life. What is most surprising about Breaking Bad is just how desensitized the modern viewer has become to the once risqué. Ten years ago meth was nothing more than scary new designer drug from the Pacific Northwest that was cheap to produce and reeked havoc on the human body and psyche. Today, besides being a creeping national epidemic, it’s the subject of an Emmy winning series on the American Movie Classics network.

The strength of Breaking Bad lies in its protagonist, Walter White (Bryan Cranson), an unassuming, average 50-year-old high school Chemistry teacher living in suburban Albuquerque. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn of Deadwood acclaim) is pregnant with an unplanned child, his son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy and if life couldn’t get any more complicated, White is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Cranson is the most unassuming choice for White. Prior to this series he was best known for reoccurring roles on Seinfeld as the slimy dentist Tim Whatley, and as the dopey father on the dysfunctional family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. In Breaking Bad he remarkably morphs into a tragic character coming to grips with his upcoming demise, his run of the mill lifestyle, his past regrets and his financial obligations to his family.

His character belongs in the same family as American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, Jeff Bridges’ character in Fearless and the protagonist of Kurosawa’s masterful Ikiru. Like his cinematic brethren, White’s character has recently awakened from the slumber of his routine life and decides to risk it all, live it up, or, as the title puts it, ‘break bad’. 

After discovering the cancer plaguing his smoke-free lungs and learning about the big bucks in the meth game from his DEA brother-in-law, White seeks out help from a former student he once flunked, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). When the series pilot commences and concludes (the show’s sharp editing is worth noting) the ill-matched duo has been cooking up inside a R.V. in the middle of the desert, White is stripped-down to his everyman white underwear and he is toting a handgun as the sirens approach from the distance.

The meth lab scheme that White proposes to Pinkman is both a sign of desperation (he needs to save up a lump sum of cash for his family’s future) as well as White’s way of letting loose during his potentially final months on earth. In one of the season’s best moments White erupts in a family intervention aimed at coaxing him into chemo treatment and spells out exactly how he wants to live his life. When the show wants to be sentimental, White’s true to life cancer realities get the job done. 

White’s chemistry background remains mysterious throughout the first season. We learn that he was once a brilliant and prosperous mind at CIT but somewhere along the way strayed off this fruitful path and now lectures to detached high school students for just shy of $45K a year.  

He knows his way around the substances needed to concoct the highly potent, highly addictive pipe fodder and seems to have an unhealthy fascination with the dangers and anarchy of chemistry. As the series unfolds its clear that there is a little hell-raiser lurking behind the eyes of this average Joe. 

To this end the show is also very much a tutorial of some of the more curious outlets of basic chemistry in the same way House M.D. enlightens viewers with viruses and diseases. It’s not surprising that Breaking Bad’s most memorable moments are found in the various make-shift labs that White and Pinkman set up or when the two get creative with their scheming (a darkly comedic gross-out moment involving a corpse, hydrofluoric acid and an unstable porcelain tub is the kind of scene that will either turn viewers away or permanently suck them into the mayhem).

Despite the series’ somber storyline, Cranston brings a level of welcomed dark humor to the role. His witty banter and sarcastic outlook on his predicament pairs well with White’s underused intellect and bottled up rage towards the life he’s chosen. His interactions with the naïve Pinkman, a thugged out, wannabe player who is also in desperate need of more character development, showcase some of the show’s finest writing. Then there’s the larger than life Latino drug dealer named Tuco Salamanca (played with gleeful exuberance by veteran character actor Raymond Cruz) who gives viewers a hell of a cliffhanger during the season finale.

Breaking Bad’s first season, a meager seven episodes, is not without its flaws. A great deal of time is spent detailing the production and business side of White’s meth trade, however, little attention is reserved for the drug’s societal effects. White manages to cook up an extremely pure batch of “glass,” which according to a character can keep you high for days, however, the series fails to show the users who are filling White’s wallet. Programs like HBOs The Wire, which to be fair belongs in its own category of television series, succeed by channeling all sides of the drug war. In its first season Breaking Bad takes a timely social issue like meth abuse, brings it to suburbia but fails to show the bigger picture. For anyone privy to crystal meth’s effect on this country, it is widely known that it is hardly a petty drug.

Besides being terribly addictive (addiction is ripe for dramatic television), meth remains one of the most physically harmful drugs available, one that few are able to successfully recover from. That this side of Breaking Bad is still a mystery (after all the show’s is currently in its second season) is an aspect of the series that is fairly bothersome and irresponsible.

White is clearly throwing caution to the wind since learning of his cancer and his actions are seldom those of a completely sane man, however, through Cranston’s refined performance and the little background info available, it’s safe to say White has a good head on his shoulders. To believe that he wouldn’t concern himself with the repercussions of his highly potent meth formula–both on his family and the drug using community–is the one aspect of Breaking Bad that is a bit hard to swallow and hopefully will be developed/remedied further on down the road.

Television as a medium has come a long way since the early days of three major networks, a handful of nightly newscasts, and the occasional prudent sitcom. There was a time when the riskiest moments on TV were live prime-time disasters (Elvis Costello going against the corporate grain on Saturday Night Live), controversial episodes (Seinfeld’s notorious “Puerto Rican Day Parade” turn for example), or the Godfathers of Reality TV, Cops and America’s Most Wanted. To think that in this day and age a gripping dramatic series about a middle age man cooking up Crystal Meth would be as engrossing as your average hour-long drama is yet another indication to the endless directions writers can take television, truly rivaling that of its more revered cinematic and literary counterparts. 

Breaking Bad is as gritty and risqué–censored language, blood soaked scenes of violence and even a bit of backside male nudity–as other envelope pushing cable network series like The Shield or AMC’s other golden child, Mad Men. The acting is polished and, in the case of Cranston, very surprising. At a paltry seven episodes, the series’ first season has a few glitches to work out, hopefully in the current second season but overall it is a unique shining light of a program amid an overly saturated market of bad sitcoms and mind numbing reality offerings.