Monday, August 15, 2011

What "Breaking Bad" Does Badly [*UPDATED]


"Man, Milli Vanilli have really let themselves go downhill."

Someone finally wrote it, and it finally dawned that we should jump on this bus. The Beast wonders why it can't watch a single episode of AMC's Coen-Brothers pastiche Breaking Bad without fast-forwarding through at least half of it. We certainly find some story arcs (Mike & Jesse, Gus, the Diablo Twins) more fascinating than others (Skylar & Ted, bullet-headed douchebag Hank & his kleptoholic wife Marie). But it has come down to individual scenes, and what the impossibly tall shadow left by David Chase's monumental The Sopranos has done to television writing.

As Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz wrote today: "This is one of the central paradoxes of long-form TV storytelling: the nature of the medium lets filmmakers explore the details and texture of day-to-day problem solving, the very stuff of life, with scope and depth; and yet any show that seizes that opportunity risks boring its audience."

Wordie Worderson. What all of AMC's prestige-laden, post-Mad Men AMC ensemble dramas like The Walking Dead seem to have hit upon was the mistaken examination of daily minutiae as an excuse to draw out tension and pad the plotless black holes. Case in point: the rightfully frustrating The Killing, where a couple's grief over the death of their young daughter is drawn down to such an agonizing snail's pace (each episode takes place on sequential days) that it does what Clint Eastwood's Hereafter did for the subject of Death: it makes it boring. (The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin has also written about this peculiar quirk.)

There are time when this works spectacularly, most noticeably in BB's masterful opening and closing sequences of each episode: the day-in-the-life montage of the motel hooker whom Jessie Pinkman corrals for a lame murder plot; or the balletic, Sergio Leone-cribbed running gun battle in an Alberquerque parking lot. Seitz cites Walt and Jesse trying to dispose of the bodies of the two dealers in Season 1, the Season 2 episode where they were held hostage by a lunatic drug kingpin, this season's grisly "Box Cutter" sequence as successes in this vein, and on that I would add Jesse's hallucinatory standoff with a couple of scumbag street dealers and "fixer" Mike's calm, military-style assault on a cartel meth lab. (The veteran beady-eyed tough guy Jonathan Banks should get an Emmy for his portayal of doting pappy Mike, who is basically Anton Chigurh with a no hair and a weary sense of humor.)

Where it doesn't work? Seitz points to last night's episode: "Jesse-and-Mike in the desert sequence is a much less defensible example. It surely could have been compressed, beyond the music montage, to get to the important part: Jesse shaking off his torpor and throwing himself into the new job he's been assigned." I would add to this list the interminable scene where Walt and Skylar try to work out their "Gambling Addiction" story, and even that nasty box cutter scene could have been trimmed for maximum impact. Even Jessie's shooting of the weird meth chef Gale Boetticher just went on and on and on...

BB is frequently cited alongside Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Weeds, Big Love and Boardwalk Empire as one of the beneficiaries of The Sopranos redrawing of the scripted page. One of the innovations of that series was the unpredictable staging and scene length. Free from having to cut to commericals, Chase & Co. had more time to let their scenes breathe, to expand them past where the average TV viewer, brainwashed by the bite-sized quick edits of network TV, would say, OK, here's where we cut away to something else.What The Sopranos did brilliantly -- besides rendering dramatic interplay between characters with such complexity that you can still catch small subtleties you missed the first 50 times -- was taking this extra time and, quite simply, doing something with it. There are many examples, but our fave is defintitely the scene where Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) drops by the home of Ralphie Cifarello (Joe Pantoliano) for breakfast and winds up murdering him on the kitchen floor. The scene is around 6-7 minutes long, last time we checked -- but it's like a mini-play in three acts: Tony drops by on a lazy Sunday morning and greets Ralphie, comforts him on his son's recent hospitalization, they go inside, Ralphie in his pajamas cooks eggs with sour cream, everything is calm, then the tensions starts, backs off, then rises again, finally exploding in a death struggle. Utterly unpredictable and a scene you'd never see on NBC.

*UPDATE (10/14/11): Okay, they FINALLY got it right: the breathtaking 13 minute playlet at the end of this season's episode "Hermanos", where the mundane ("We offer a number of side orders...") mixes eloquently with the nightmarish ("You did this to him."):

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