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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.

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Thinking Outside The Box

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Historically TV has been the whipping boy for crimes against the art of cinema. Whether it’s the butchery of panning and scanning, intrusion of advertising or hatchet job of editing, televised movies are often the husks of their theatrical counterparts. At least in America, it doesn’t appear the situation is much improving. Internet channel Netflix regularly shows movies in the wrong aspect ratio and decisions such as movie network Epix airing a colour version of the recent black-and-white Oscar contender Nebraska suggest continuing blindness to the intentions of filmmakers. However, it is just as common for television to victimise itself.

The lucrative business of syndication whereby the rights to re-air TV series are sold off has seen many classic shows chopped up to fit new timeslots and networks. Syndicated versions of sublime sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Dick Van Dyke Show have their punchlines cut to ribbons in order to squeeze in a commercial and are rushed off the air like a mentally challenged America’s Got Talent contestant to shave seconds. The market value of these shows is as back-to-back episodes so they appear on the air as homogeneous broadcast flow rather than the individual masterpieces they are.

You have to laugh at the jokes you can't see!

You have to laugh at the jokes you can’t see!

Most recently, a retrospective of The Simpsons on Fox sister channel FXX was blighted by the majority of episodes being stretched from their original 4:3 broadcast ratio to the 16: 9 representative of most current HD television sets. This effectively cropped about a quarter of the sight gags in any given frame and grossly distorted and disrupted the animators’ carefully composed tableaus. As The Simpsons makes such a compelling case for treating TV as an art form, it is particularly disappointing to see it treated so artlessly. Worse is that those who complained were treated like spoilsports rather than aficionados.

Syndication has become as harmful to the integrity of TV shows as broadcast has to movies. Censored versions of explicit cable dramas such as The Walking Dead and The Sopranos play on networks still governed by draconian Broadcast Standards and Practices departments. The very concept of these shows hinges on being able to demonstrate violence onscreen, and their essence is inseparable from the freedom of obscenity granted by the original broadcast context. As with all the movies that existed in two irreconcilable versions thanks to television, we will soon have TV shows that are better known in their bastardised forms.

I saw the cinematic spectre of this issue recently when going to the movies to watch Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy. A six-part BBC Two sitcom in the UK, in the US it has been edited and exhibited as a two-hour feature film, where star Steve Coogan is known (in some circles) as a movie actor not a TV comedian. It’s a sharp reminder that what TV and cinema are depends on where you are in the world. But I found it interesting that no-one complained about damage that the transfer to cinema had done to the TV series.

You could argue that there are untold benefits to making a movie out of this TV series that there would not be in the reverse case. Cinema provides a more spectacular realisation of Winterbottom’s scenic photography and editing down to feature length curbs some of the self-indulgence of the star-and-navel-gazing original. But it simply does not work as a movie, not even as the conceptual art movie it purports to be nor the ones it claims to follow. The structure and pacing are that of the British sextet sitcom, and perverting that results in the look of a failed experiment.

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

Hancock and Sid (UK); Crosby and Hope (US)

The aesthetic arguments are really only a veneer for the economic ones. Coogan is known best, if at all, to film audiences and so the cinema is the most profitable place for one of his vehicles. Winterbottom tends to direct movies and logically his name will generate the most interest in connection with a cinematic release. The reasons for putting a medium-appropriate version of The Trip to Italy into theatres are not that different from the motivations for squashing movies into the TV schedules. It’s only an outmoded belief in the artistic superiority of cinema that makes it seem so.

TV has done terrible things to great movies. But it doesn’t discriminate between artworks in TV and in other media. As TV climbs to cultural respectability, its programmers seem determined undo that reputation. However, cinema is just as guilty in what it does with prestige TV. Bigger is not better.

Braking Bad

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Touring TV, TV Culture, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2014 by Tom Steward

 

We’ve got some haz-mat suits in the van’

 

Last week I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the celebrated AMC crime drama Breaking Bad was set and shot. During my time there I went on a tour of the show’s locations. This consisted of an informal convoy of cars parading the city which, with its walkie-talkies, cyclical movement and talk of ‘herding’ and ‘getting separated’, reminded me of another AMC series, The Walking Dead. The show is so ingrained in the city that it’s entirely possible to take a Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque without even knowing. It turned out I had been to several of the locations earlier in the week, including The Grove Restaurant, one of the recurring set-pieces in Season 5, which just happened to be opposite my hotel. In that instance, I was there not as a fan but as an aficionado of oversized baked goods.

Making Mad Money!

Making Mad Money!

Everyone on the tour was struck by how close the locations were to each other. Film and TV locations are usually discontinuous – even if they are supposed to be within the same area – and tend to be arbitrarily stitched together to form an entirely new map that suits the logic of the programme or movie. Except for a few jarring instances, Breaking Bad seems to choose its locations according to the geography of Albuquerque. That doesn’t mean, however, that the show’s directors weren’t adept at transforming locations to fit the tone and meaning of the story. In Breaking Bad, The Grove is a soulless, empty corporate coffee shop whereas the real spot is a bustling, cheery local produce market and café. The Whites’ family home always reeked of lower-middle class suburban compromise but in life it is a desirable piece of real estate in a pretty, upscale neighbourhood.

What soap are they using at the car wash?

What soap are they using at the car wash?

It was clear from the array of visitors to the Breaking Bad locations that the show has created a demand for tourism in Albuquerque. It was less clear how interested the natives of Albuquerque are in making a fully-fledged tourist industry out of it. We were chased off a couple of properties, both politely and impolitely, and in other places which were working businesses you got the impression that they didn’t mind having you look around but nor did they particularly care you were there. A few plaques and souvenirs from the show were scattered here and there, like the gloriously kitsch sign for the fictional Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant in the branch of Twister’s which subbed for it, but nothing extravagant or mercenary. I applaud their effort to maintain identities and existences independent from their appearances in Breaking Bad and I liked being in them more because of that.

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The sign is there, the restaurant is not.

As we saw with mixed local reactions to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, it’s not how much a place is onscreen that matters, it’s how that place is represented. Breaking Bad certainly gestures to what makes Albuquerque a place of beauty – its inspiring urban murals, its mountain-lined vista landscapes – but it’s somewhat undermined by being identified as a run-down, crime-ridden city where an opera of meth and death can credibly play out. This may be at the root of the locals’ ambivalence. It’s no coincidence that the most adverse reaction we got from a local was from the owner of The Crossroads Motel, depicted as a hangout of meth addicts, dealers and hookers in the show where it is nicknamed ‘The Crystal Palace’. The most business-sensible of the proprietors use Breaking Bad as a hook. At Twister’s, I arrived thinking about Breaking Bad and left dreaming about their breakfast burrito.

The Nazi compound.

The Nazi compound.

Albuquerque is a far-cry from Hobbiton or Highclere Castle though in some ways Breaking Bad is more rooted in the reality of the city than either The Hobbit or Downton Abbey is in their tourist-trap theme parks. At the disused rail-lined storage facility that housed the Nazi compound in which the denouement of Breaking Bad takes place, there are the remnants of a public-made shrine to Walter White. But however much you wish to imagine it a place of fiction and imagination, it remains a place of foreboding and sinister feeling irrespective of its meaning in the show. Being there you fear real Nazis, or worse. Turning around – and crucially away from the show for a second – you’re faced with a scene of Albuquerque in all its natural southwestern glory. That’s the difference. It’s Breaking Bad, for sure, but something else, and something just as effective, maybe more.

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