August 21st, 2011
Admittedly, I am once again delayed in getting to Breaking Bad by another commitment (this time covering The Glee Project finale over at The A.V. Club), but I also think it’s another episode where an extra-long treatise feels sort of unnecessary.
“Cornered” is another straightforward hour for the show, getting right to the point thematically and having the characters more or less follow suit. Walt, in particular, has been an open book in recent weeks, at least to an audience that has been watching the show all along. It’s not quite a cry for help, as Skyler diagnoses it early in the episode, but I do think that it’s an obvious sign that Walt’s worst neuroses are rising to the surface.
And that Walt and Jesse are as much alike as ever before.
August 14th, 2011
It was late this evening before I got to tonight’s Breaking Bad, as a result of filling in on Entourage at The A.V. Club, but when I finished watching “Shotgun” I found myself at a loss. Perhaps it was simply that I knew my review would be less than timely (especially with most critics still working with screeners), but it also seems like “Shotgun” pretty much lays its cards on the table.
It’s a rare instance where we see both the cause and the effect, and where character actions are contextualized in almost every instance. While the show doesn’t outright spell everything out for us, there are enough moments of clarity within an often impressionistic hour of television for us to be pretty confident in where things are headed from this point forward.
And while there’s something a bit strange about that, I can’t deny that it remained a satisfying stage in the season’s development.
Cultural Checkup: Suits and White Collar
August 12th, 2011
Although I’ve stopped watching Burn Notice, and ceased my bizarre commitment to the dull Royal Pains this summer, and didn’t bother with Covert Affairs’ second season, and didn’t even bother with Necessary Roughness (which I thought looked terrible), I remain really quite interested with USA as a network. With White Collar, they have a show that I think hits a lot of interesting buttons, and with Suits you have a show that seems to be aiming for the same goal. They’re shows that I like a great deal in particular moments, and that are in two very different stages of development.
However, as I drop in on both shows this week, I’ll admit that I find them a bit frustrating. While Suits has a lot of potential, its youthfulness shows signs of uncertainty in regards to questions of genre and narrative, problems that White Collar continues to carry even as it clearly leads the network’s offerings in terms of quality. I know that the general approach to USA programming is not quite this hyper-critical, but I’ve stored up a few too many things to say about the two shows, so I figured the Cultural Checkup was a good way to get through them.
August 7th, 2011
“Walter H. White – a man of hidden talents.”
When I reviewed the premiere a few weeks ago, I discussed whether or not the show’s flashback opening rendered the episode a “wee bit too writerly.” Obviously, considering that I used the phrase “wee bit,” I didn’t consider it a serious problem, but it is something that Breaking Bad can engage in on occasion.
“Bullet Points” is filled with writerly moments. It’s an episode in which the show’s characters literally script out their actions, and where elements of performance and theater are put front and center. There is nothing more writerly than meta-storytelling, and Moira Walley-Beckett’s script certainly doesn’t hide the fact that it’s gesturing back to previous seasons in a major way.
It’s also blisteringly funny, suspenseful without necessarily relying on major plot developments, and offers a great deal of insight into how these characters confront their demons: some of them bury them, some of them obsess over them, and all of them are in desperate need of someone to talk to.
July 24th, 2011
“It’s like nothing but good days ahead.”
Walt remarks near the end of “Thirty-Eight Snub” that it’s been a hell of a last couple of weeks, which is certainly true: in fact, the sheer dramatic weight of the entire third season hangs in the air throughout this episode, the first one where the show feels stops to take a breath.
That breath doesn’t contain a great deal of surprise, much as last week’s resolution to the season three cliffhanger went about as one might expect. Based on what we saw at the end of last week’s episode, Jesse and Walt respond about as one would expect to their attempts at returning to something of a normal life, but just like last week’s episode the predictable remains compelling. There is so much baggage within these characters and within this show as a whole that the pathos is enough to carry even storylines that call attention to their true purpose. That line above is way too on-the-nose in laying out the theme of Jesse’s portion of the episode, for example, but it only serves to reinforce instead of undoing the work that was done.
Free from the “suspense” of last week’s outing, “Thirty-Eight Snub” instead just throws the show’s fantastic actors into tense situations and asks them to play out life as they would know it. It’s striking, it’s evocative, and it’s a whole lot of momentum for an episode that actively evades any major showdowns.
July 17th, 2011
It has been over thirteen months since Breaking Bad finished its third season, which isn’t something that happens all that often. Of course, AMC will be dealing with this issue twice in one year when Mad Men returns early next year, but that show didn’t leave on an arresting cliffhanger. “Full Measure” was a thrilling hour of television, creating suspense through uncertainty as opposed to mystery. We know what happened, and the sequence of events that allowed it to happen were delineated without any sudden twists or turns, but the finale left us with a sense of disbelief: we were haunted by that final image more than we were shocked by it, and we desired its conclusion less to have something resolved and more to see something begin.
“Box Cutter” picks up where “Full Measure” left off, although not immediately. The episode is very interested in the dramatic power of delay, lingering in those moments of waiting for the other shoe to fall. It doesn’t seek to surprise us so much as it seeks to make us reconsider: it knows we spent a year thinking about the various possibilities, so it lays out a likely scenario and then basically sits back and lets our own anxiety drive this story forward. The result is bracing in its minimalism if a wee bit writerly, further cementing Breaking Bad’s reputation as one of the most distinctive dramas on television.
And, yes, one of its finest as well.
November 30th, 2010
The performance episodes of Glee have been pretty universally strong: both “Sectionals” and “Journey” avoided relying purely on spectacle, delivering episodes which consolidate season-long developments. The first episode confirmed that New Directions could survive without Will and come together as a team, while “Journey” brought both Sue’s relationship with New Directions and Rachel’s relationship to Finn to a triumphant close.
“Special Education” is notable in that it is the first performance episode that doesn’t serve as any sort of ending. With “Sectionals” positioned as the closing hour of the show’s original 13-episode order (and filmed before the show became an established hit), and with “Journey” as the first season finale, there was always a sense of closure. By comparison, “Special Education” isn’t even closing out the first part of the season (the Christmas episode airs next week), which means that the event is going to be considerably less climactic than what we’ve seen before.
While not perfect, I quite like what Brad Falchuk and Paris Barclay did with this hour. A self-reflexive deconstruction of the balance between the individual and the group within the series, the episode lacks subtlety but resists the urge to smooth over its various conflicts. While the show doesn’t quite commit to the character drama to the point where it avoids the cheery group number at episode’s end, I thought it had some legitimately interesting insight into what that balance means to the series. The spirit of the show may not be broken, but there are enough cracks in the armor that “Special Education” successfully delivers spectacle and transition without resolving anything.
Allowing for the Christmas denouement next week.
June 13th, 2010
“We had a good run…but it’s over.”
When I sat down at about 3:00 am last night to watch the Breaking Bad finale after arriving home from my trip to Madison, I discovered that AMC was showing “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” Mad Men’s third season finale. It took me a good ten minutes before I managed to turn on my recording of “Full Measure.” There is something exhilarating about that finale, something immensely pleasurable as lingering storylines that were sort of floating their way through the season (Lane’s dissatisfaction, Joan’s marginalization, etc.) become wrapped up in an unforgettable heist narrative which launches the show in a fascinating new direction.
And as I sit down the next day to consider “Full Measure,” I can’t help but make some comparisons, although less in terms of quality (both are great, we don’t need to qualify which is “better”) and more in terms of structure. “Full Measure” is similar to “Shut the Door…” in that it shows our protagonists struggling to respond to a new set of circumstances which threaten them in some capacity, but the world of Mad Men values creativity first and foremost, something which Breaking Bad tends to oppress (as we see with Jesse as the paralyzed artist figure, his youthful drawings or woodcraft projects signs of wasted potential). So while Don and Co. got out of their situation with some creative thinking, and the series found its finale in contrasting the creation of a new direction while simultaneously dissolving another, Walt and Jesse solve their circumstances with a cold dose of reality, and the series finds its finale in doing as it has always done: following through on the social, psychological, and monumental consequences of going down this dangerous path.
The result is a fairly simple tragedy with less than simple ramifications, as “Full Measure” uses the show’s trademark tension to cap off a stunning season of television which went on a run that is most certainly not over as the series heads towards its fourth season with an obnoxious amount of momentum.
June 6th, 2010
“You are not a murderer – you’re not, and I’m not. It’s as simple as that.”
If I had been drinking something when Walt said the above line, I’m pretty sure I would have done a spit take.
This reaction comes for two different reasons. The first is the idea that Walt is not a murderer, which seems patently false when you consider the numerous people he’s killed (whether it’s not saving Jane or the two men who he killed as a result of the meth lab explosion in the pilot). However, that’s part of Walt’s character, his ability to convince himself that it doesn’t make you a murderer if you kill them for the right reasons, just as it doesn’t make you a criminal if you’re doing it for your family. And so I can understand that this is part of Walt’s self-delusion, and so my spit take is perhaps unwarranted.
However, even if we accept that Walt believes that his past actions do not define him as a murderer, his argument that it is “as simple as that” is laughable to the point of a solid guffaw. Breaking Bad is many things, but simple is not one of them, and while Walt has his delusions he should know by now that things are never quite that simple. It’s one thing to try to justify your behaviour through rationalization, and it is quite another to try to convince yourself that your world of meth cooking, money laundering, revenge seeking and turf wars is in any way simple, or that anyone is capable of maintaining a simple life when you’re caught up in that world.
And yet, in some ways I think “Half Measures” proved my guffaws to be misguided: while Walt’s first claim may remain laughable, his latter claim may not be so farfetched, his desire for simplicity ultimately futile and yet the only way he can think to respond to the complexity of his current situation. The result is a blunt, even simple, action with enormously complex consequences for Walt, Jesse, and the series’ narrative, the exact kind of bold move which has elevated the show to the upper echelon of television drama.
“The Floating Anniversary”
October 14th, 2009
I could take a gander at Cougar Town tonight, considering that I remain really perplexed at people who can’t seem to get beyond the show’s premise and Cox’s overacting to see a show that has a really strong emotional core, but since I didn’t get to cover The Middle’s pilot I figure I should discuss the show’s third episode. The show is not as inventive as Modern Family, or as diverse as Cougar Town (which I find more cohesive), but it is a solid family comedy that’s a bit reductive of Malcolm in the Middle but could have had a much worse fate.
What makes the show work is that it features good performances and has a surefire sitcom premise that is inarguably charming. I think the kids are decently engaging, Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn make believable parents, and perhaps more importantly the show has something to say about families dealing with an economic crisis. Where the show loses points in how it tends to stick to the same jokes, and how it relies too heavily on Patricia Heaton’s performance without letting the other parts of the show get their due.
“The Floating Anniversary” is perhaps the weakest episode yet, if only because it feels the least like an ensemble piece: while the pilot logically placed the emphasis on the biggest star who is at the heart of the show, I think the show needs to branch out beyond its stereotypes in order to really grab my attention.