Archive for breaking bad

The Finale

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, Internet TV, Reviews, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2021 by Tom Steward

New Blog 15.1

Ten years is a long time for a show to be on the air. I don’t even know if blogging still exists after ten years.

I started this blog to connect better with the woman I was going to marry and the country I was going to live in through the medium I knew best – television. I was already a US TV scholar by the time I began, but I had never lived in it. I had looked at it through binoculars. After seven years from the inside looking out, I now don’t know any other way to watch television except with Americans.

I’ve been fighting the redundancy of this endeavor for some years now. That’s why the blog has changed so much recently. I experimented with “Watching TP with Americans” – an 18-part series about Twin Peaks: The Return that was as strange and incomplete as the program itself, though far less brilliant. I knew the format had to change and had to match what it was talking about, hence the popcorn-style blogging that took us to the present day. My hope was this could accommodate the rise of social media. I didn’t clock that this was a tacit admission of blogging being too broken to survive.

Every good Pilot has a trigger and all good Finales need a button. For me, this is divorce. When the Seinfeld cast got imprisoned, there could be no more Seinfeld (except as a Curb Your Enthusiasm meta-world). There were enough reasons for it to end – not least the end of the nineties – but this was the point of no return (the end-credits version of Jerry in jail is enough for me). American TV is no longer a mystery to me and blogging is an anachronism, but I could conceivably carry on in that knowledge. Cable and Outlook are supposedly dead in the water too, but I still have both of those. I can’t go further because I’m no longer married to the woman I started this blog with and for.

New Blog 15.2

I always wanted to end the blog by writing about The Sopranos. I will, but I’m really writing about my marriage. David Chase said The Sopranos would end after four seasons. At the end of the fourth season, Tony and Carmela were separated. Two worthwhile if imperfect seasons followed. Then the series ended in a way that pleased no-one. There was no therapist in the finale. As time passed without The Sopranos, we stopped focusing on the final scene and began to appreciate what there was in the episode we liked. Stories were worked out sadly but well. Time was spent with the family. I don’t know where Lilyhammer fits into this analogy. Maybe that’s my bachelor future.

Finales are never good. They are often bad, occasionally transcendent, and invariably passable. I think of Justified, which ended as it began, which is to say perfectly. Six Feet Under broke all the rules of what makes a good series ending in that in offered on paper nothing but errors and on screen nothing but joy. I respect the finale of Breaking Bad because it refused to end any other way than it possibly could, but it was already a story told. Steven Bochco passed while this blog was live and I admired the finales of NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues for trying to be normal episodes for as long as they could get away with it. Let’s face it, most shows aren’t intact by the time they get to their finale. They’re in a slow limp with a false leg.

This blog too ends far removed from whence it came. One look at the Zoom-fatigued faces of awards show attendees will tell you that TV itself is also a shadow of its own interconnected liveness. It remains a fascinating object in the best and worst of TV times, and providers will soon hold the balance of corporate power over movie studios as they did in the 1960s. I’ll keep my social media accounts open and comment when and where I think it is deserved, but not regularly. I still keep a Creed’s Word Document Blog in my mind of what I want to say about American TV. But, even for the internet, it’s … pretty shocking.

My life was shaped by American TV. Now my life is American TV. I lost a lot in getting here. I still have “Cosby’s sex smirk and Roseanne’s sarcy liberal mum laugh”, but they are forever tainted.

New Blog 15.3

Got Milch?: Part 2

Posted in American TV Shows, BiogTV, Local TV, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 13, 2015 by Tom Steward

It’s the longest-awaited sequel since Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and probably just as underwhelming. The promise of a second part that never comes is one that resonates with what I’m going to talk about here, David Milch’s follow-up to Deadwood at HBO John from Cincinnati, which along with Luck lasted one season and is now freely available to stream on Amazon Prime Instant Video as part of their HBO collection – designed, no doubt, to take the edge off the company’s flagrant employee abuse. This is the David Milch series that means the most to me.

2 minutes to Mexico!

2 minutes to Mexico!

There are plenty of TV shows that have put places on the map. But what about the shows that failed to make their locations famous? Breaking Bad made Alberquerque a hub of tourism and yet John from Cincinnati did not do the same for Imperial Beach, a coastal community south of San Diego bordering Mexico, in which the series is exclusively set. Perversely, tourism has come to Imperial Beach without the help of John from Cincinnati only a few years after the series aired. And, to rub sea-salt in the wound, Imperial Beach attracted visitors by projecting an image contrary to the one presented in John from Cincinnati. Imagine Hobbiton becoming overrun with people only after a brutalist tower block was erected in the centre of downton (which is what I’m presuming they call downtown in Middle Earth). I know this not because I’m a good journalist but a resident.

Of San Diego, that is. But I did live in Imperial Beach briefly a couple of years ago when I first arrived in the states. Though on an upswing even then, the community felt more like the faded surfer haunt gently harbouring drug addicts and derelict motels that is depicted in John from Cincinnati than it does today. Now it is a prime beach destination replete with upscale hotels and restaurants. Apart from the most inconspicuous memorabilia in a few local establishments, there’s no sense that a TV show was ever filmed here, and certainly not as recently. I’d like to attribute that to the thoroughly dysfunctional portrayal of Imperial Beach, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. After all, Breaking Bad made Alberquerque famous not attractive. Despite the esteemed creator and network, John from Cincinnati was not liked or known enough to front a campaign for tourism.

It’s depressingly easy to see why the show was not embraced. It is aggressively cryptic, with titular John not a protagonist in the conventional sense but a conduit who precipitates the actions of other characters and speaks only in the words of those he encounters. John is not human, or at least not mortal in the way we understand it. Others have unsubstantiated mystical ability. The writing and acting is egregiously ornate and portentous, even for a David Milch drama. In particular, Rebecca DeMornay proves herself the missing link between the Lifetime school of TV movie acting and the televisual avant-garde. On the other hand, it seems like John from Cincinnati is punished for the strangeness we conversely admire in shows like Twin Peaks. Milch’s previous drama Deadwood was universally praised, and yet was similarly impenetrable, but because it was linguistically rather than conceptually challenging, it was somehow more acceptable.

Coming after Deadwood may have been John from Cincinnati’s greatest error. Milch’s fanbase scapegoated the show for taking Deadwood off the air after only three seasons and – as I’m sure Nic Pizzolatto and David Simon will testify – critics have only one use for shows that follow TV of wide acclaim. I don’t want to be a John from Cincinnati apologist; at times it is too pretentious for its own good, and it would be hypocritical of me to boycott Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who for its incoherence and not at least mention it here. Much of my interest in the show is strictly geographical, although that does help me understand its intentions better than someone who’s never experienced Imperial Beach would. It is, however, one of the few shows I can’t think that transcends classification. You’ll have a hard time relating this to any format or genre of television out there.

Dayton Callie prepares for Sons of Anarchy

Dayton Callie prepares for Sons of Anarchy

John from Cincinnati is undoubtedly hard work, but if it’s elision of norms is not reward enough for you, then maybe its peerless cast, all of whom are given monologues equalling the best of Milch’s writing, should be. Among them are character giants Ed O’Neill, Dayton Callie and Jim Beaver.

Box Spin

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

On Sunday and Monday, as part of a 2-night event (isn’t everything these days?) AMC debuted Better Call Saul, a spin-off from its corner-turning drama series Breaking Bad based around Walter White’s kitschily corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman. For reasons that can only lead to spoilers, Better Call Saul is a prequel. Despite the unabated popularity of Breaking Bad and the character, there’s still the risk that a spin-off would damage the reputation of the programme, especially one that promotes to protagonist a character who mainly functioned as much-needed comic relief in one of the bleakest shows on television. AMC needn’t have worried because, as with all good long-form television, Saul grew into a much more rounded character as Breaking Bad went on (lest we forget that Walt started out as a clown) and it’s this version of the character that Better Call Saul has inherited. But in TV the odds aren’t against them (or as against them) since there’s nothing to say a spin-off show won’t be as good as or even better than the original.

Check out Better Call Saul!

Check out Better Call Saul!

As Steve Coogan self-reflexively observes in The Trip to Italy there are only ever one or two movies anybody ever quotes when arguing that sequels can be better than the original. Of course, TV has its go-to canon of superior spin-offs (Frasier and anything produced by Norman Lear, who understood the value of maintaining a universe of characters decades before Marvel Studios cottoned on to the idea) but the medium has a pretty good hit rate when it comes to franchises. TV is so generically nebulous (modern quality TV even more so) that it barely matters when a spin-off is more or less comic than its predecessor. In today’s TV when series take so long to hit their stride, their spin-offs may even pick up a show when the quality’s still good and perhaps before they’ve had time to peak. This seems to be what’s happening with Better Call Saul which reaches heights in its first two episodes that it took Breaking Bad (despite its calculated seriality) three seasons to achieve.

But what we’ve seen of Better Call Saul isn’t free of the pitfalls of spin-offs either. Gratuitous cameos from former cast members are one of the biggest obstacles to spin-offs being able to fly solo, and this one has them in spades. The re-appearance of gnome-faced security man Mike in the unfamiliar role of a car park attendant is not at all the problem. We know that history will draw the two men together, so we expect to see him enter Saul’s life somehow. But running into loose-cannon drug dealer and Walt’s former distributor Tuco in a coincidence that would make Dickens blush (plus members of his gang who also appeared in Breaking Bad) really is a step too far. Although some of this is the problem of prequels. Prompted by the none-too-subtle nods of the writers, we’re constantly anticipating moments from Breaking Bad instead of enjoying what the new ones have to offer. Despite the pleasing evocation of middle-America at its most moribund in opening black-and-white images recalling Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (which star Bob Odenkirk also featured in), it may have been a mistake to start at the end.

Aside from these distractions, which may have been the result of the writers sensibly trying to break Bad fans in, we’re left with a series whose name may one day be called without company. It will never completely transcend Breaking Bad, especially with original creator Vince Gilligan at the helm here too, but I’m confident we’ll soon be able to consider them separately. It’s possible to foresee Better Call Saul doing for the portrayal of lawyers what Breaking Bad did for scientists. Like Walt, Saul is not just the grumpy maverick we’re used to when confronted with so-called ‘antiheros’; he’s a criminal with a deviant moral code. That said, while we always suspected that Walt was acting out of pure self-interest (which was confirmed by the finale), there’s the irony that the earlier incarnation of villain Saul comes across far more nobly and altruistically than ‘good-guy-turned-bad’ Walt ever did. We can still think about Walt without making Saul any less interesting.

One of these is not like the other.

One of these is not like the other.

If I’m jumping the gun here, it’s because TV history tells me there’s nothing to worry about. When a spin-off is terrible it’s usually because there’s nothing left in the tank. Breaking Bad’s by-the-numbers finale always felt like it was holding something back. It was. A sequel. A prequel. A new modern monster.

Attack The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

This week is the midterm elections, which means that currently TV is awash with attack ads where political candidates exploit their opponent’s capacity to look sinister as a slow-moving black-and-white still. But attack ads aren’t restricted to the world of politics. AMC is running a campaign targeted at DirecTV in which subscribers are encouraged to petition their satellite provider to renew their partnership with the cable network. DirecTV have countered with a Walking Dead-themed rebuttal aimed at AMC’s ‘scare tactics’. On AMC’s post-show discussion programme Talking Dead, Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimple and host Chris Hardwicke couldn’t help but think of Carol’s bid for leadership of the group in the zombie drama without reference to the libellous voiceovers and gravelly sneer of election advertising. As it seems entirely appropriate to think about TV shows in terms of attack ads (and perhaps better since, you know, no-one real’s being unduly slandered!) I’ve come up with some voiceovers for campaign spots attacking characters from TV shows:

Breaking Bad

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque

‘Skyler White says she had nothing to do with her husband’s crimes, so where’s the money for her son’s education coming from? And if she’s so sympathetic, why do men with fake names on the internet hate her so much? @Misogynist63 on Twitter said ‘I hate Skyler White so much’ and Guy Withwomenissues on Facebook called her ‘unthankful scum’…because Skyler White made him too angry to use the correct antonym for ‘grateful’. The IRS refused to prosecute Skyler White because as an accountant she was too clueless to understand she was breaking the law. Her performance review said that she waited until the firm nearly went under before she put on a low-cut top to save her boss from jail. Skyler White: Bad for Albuquerque.’

Downton Abbey

Branson's Fickle!

Branson’s Fickle!

‘Tom Branson wants you to think he’s part of an aristocratic family, but not only was he once a socialist and a terrorist, he was really really bad at being both. Tom Branson claims he’s changed but all it took was a schoolteacher with too much lipstick to bring his pro-Russian outbursts back to the Downton dinner table. At a Town Hall debate, Tom Branson said ‘I don’t know what I am anymore’…and hasn’t stopped saying it for over two years now. Tom Branson voted against Lord Grantham’s terrible financial decisions 90% of the time. And what’s keeping Tom Branson from emigrating to America, the land of freedom? We think we know. Branson’s fickle. Paid for by The Committee for The Preservation of Cora’s Entail.’

Homeland

Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat

‘Carrie Matheson denies all knowledge of putting a pro-American regime in Iran. Why would a secret agent do that? What is she trying to hide? Carrie Matheson sometimes sleeps with terrorists for fun…and not just work. And why does her baby look exactly like a shrunken doll of America’s enemy #1 (and honoured marine and US senator) Nicholas Brody? According to her family, Carrie Matheson prefers living in Islamabad to being in America. Just like someone who might not like America that much would. And why was she seen desecrating a heroes’ memorial with a magic marker? Doctors expressed concern that Carrie Matheson couldn’t do her job because of her mental illness…a love of atonal jazz. Carrie Matheson: Cries at the drop of a hat.’

Mad Men

Don Draper: You don't have to be mad to vote for him...but it helps!

Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!

‘Don Draper won’t make his war record public. That’s because it reveals things he doesn’t want you to know. Like his compassionate support of war widows and embodiment of the American dream. He’s just pretending to be privileged and uncaring to get your vote. Don Draper has worked at three different(ly named) firms in the last five years, and is so incompetent he now works under his former secretary. Don Draper would rather drink and take drugs at home than in a workplace where it is company policy. He’s flip-flopped on the issue of smoking and airline preference, and campaigned for Nixon who he’s yet to find out is a criminal. Don Draper: You don’t have to be mad to vote for him…but it helps!’

The O’Reilly Factor

Bill O'Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really

Bill O’Reilly talks about things as if they really happened. But did you know that everything he says is bullshit? The first thing he said on his show today was bullshit. The second thing was described as ‘bullshit’. Even the third thing he said was bullshit, according to a poll. He’s voted with people who are wrong about everything 100% of the time. Bill O’Reilly: Bullshit O Really.

There’s no law against smearing a smearer…

Watching Century With Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, Reality TV, Reviews, Touring TV, TV Criticism, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2014 by Tom Steward

You know when anniversary shows try to make out that the second part is different from the first, even though it’s just another set of clips with a new (but equally banal) gimmick? Well, now you get the point of this introduction. It’s somewhat fitting, however, as what I’m most proud of about this blog is that it is different from one week to the next, even if my obsessions do tend to re-surface like a pardoned 24 terrorist. It’s a freedom writing about American TV that you can’t have making it. Here’s some more re-runs before normal service resumes:

For the second of our hundred television posts celebration that's...erm...crazy like a fox?

For the second of our hundred television posts celebration that’s…erm…crazy like a fox?

‘Given that this is how I spend most of my days anyway, it seemed perverse to be treating a TV marathon as the novelty it was supposed to be for the majority of the population. But I’m also not going to miss a golden opportunity to sit in my pants morning, noon and night continuously watching TV on one of the rare occasions it’s been deemed socially permissible’

‘It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me’

‘The Food Network could run Chard Week featuring all the best appearances of the vegetable in the mystery box on Chopped, including the time someone drizzled it with a gummiworm-infused vinaigrette’

‘If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen’

‘It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

‘Film critics can no more admit to the abysmal hit rate of current movie releases than TV critics can acknowledge that most of the time on-air television resembles an endless sewage pipe’

‘One of the places I was surprised to find TV on the air was in the air’

‘The show is so ingrained in the city that it’s entirely possible to take a Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque without even knowing’

‘Unlike other game shows, The Bachelor(ette) likes to invite its losing contestants back to occupy more senior roles in the programme, like Juan Pablo who was sent home in a previous season and is now The Bachelor. It’s like losing Final Jeopardy and then next day replacing Alex Trebek’

‘Ok, let’s consider how many people in television have ripped off Letterman since he started compared to Leno. And Bill O’Reilly doesn’t count, he just happens to be a disgusting Republican who’s bad at his job’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

‘I often feel guilty about recommending shows that don’t warm up until a few seasons in. In essence you’re asking someone to commit all their free time to something that won’t pay off for months. It’s like getting someone to invest their life-savings in a niche restaurant that you know won’t make any money for the first few years’

‘American TV seems to be in a permanent state of finale. The average season has more false endings than a Hobbit trilogy’

‘Aside from being the perfect audience since it’s guaranteed they haven’t heard his music, Vanilla Ice Goes Amish is the feeblest juxtaposition of topics since Ted Nugent tried to fight Obamacare with Dr. Seuss’

‘After all, there can’t be many clips out there of Orson Welles winding Dean Martin’s head 360 degrees with a handle’

‘I often wonder how long reality shows would last if there were no repetitions or duplications. Chopped would probably end before it began!’

‘Hours of broadcast prior to the official start time of the Oscars are taken up with reporters transmitting live from the red carpet-lined entrance as stars rotate their bodies more slowly than a Virgin Trains toilet door and answer existential questions like “who are you wearing?”’

‘Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?’

‘With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television’

‘It occurred to me recently that TV talks to us as if we’re all amnesiacs’

Vanilla Ice takes an Amish selfie...or as they call it a 'self-portrait'.

Vanilla Ice takes an Amish selfie…or as they call it a ‘self-portrait’.

‘At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it’

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