Archive for Walter White

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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Garner, But Not Forgotten

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2014 by Tom Steward

Sometimes I think I shouldn’t stop writing this blog as it seems that whenever I do someone significant to TV dies. This time, though, ‘significant’ doesn’t cut it, and all superlatives are understatements. It’s difficult to quantify what James Garner – who died of natural causes this July at the age of 86 – meant to television. Not only was he around during TV’s formative years and helped the medium come of age, he had the rare distinction of playing two of the greatest characters to ever grace the small screen. Obituaries both written and forthcoming will doubtless talk about what an incredible movie star Garner was (and indeed he was) but I always thought there was a certain dailiness about his performances that made him perfect for television, and may help explain why he kept returning to TV while his film roles continually deflated the grandiosity of the cinema.

A TV Maverick.

A TV Maverick.

Garner’s first major television role was drifter gambler Bret Maverick in Warner Brothers’ western dramedy series Maverick, which he played throughout the late fifties. The show is a one-word argument against FCC chairman Newton Minnow’s notion of TV in that era as a ‘vast wasteland’. It was anti-formulaic, adult, challenging and irreverent, and Garner’s humour, bathos and moral ambiguity in the part had a lot to do with that. Essentially a thinking man’s riposte to the branding-iron western TV series (they didn’t have cookie-cutters on the frontier!) that overpopulated the networks at the time, Maverick was an early indication of the quality of television that could be achieved working within popular genres. While Bret Maverick certainly paved the way for television antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White, Garner saw him more as a ‘reluctant hero’ and played it accordingly. It was that kind of nuance that made the difference.

In Garner’s 2011 autobiography The Garner Files – itself a classic in literary understatement – the actor’s usually low-key prose cannot downplay the importance of Maverick to the TV of its day:

‘In its own way, Maverick was “anti-establishment”. It gave voice to viewers’ dissatisfaction with the predictable, button-down TV of the ‘50s, with its black-and-white morality. Maverick explored gray areas by questioning the authority of the conventional Western hero. After Maverick, it was hard to watch those steely-eyed cowboys without laughing.’

It’s worth remembering that fifties American TV was highly praised for its character drama in anthology form like Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One, and so to offer this kind of psychological complexity in the form of a western series – more often regarded as the cultural antithesis of the anthology drama – was radical. It also showed that TV could do something worthwhile with the western formula.

That would be enough for most actors, but unbelievably Garner did it all over again as every-slob private eye Jim Rockford in Universal’s detective series The Rockford Files which ran throughout the late seventies. One of the most perfectly-made shows in television history, Garner’s lastingly lovable lead performance put it over the top, and into perpetual syndication. The actor’s iron rule over his Cherokee Productions also ensured that Universal never dragged the show back to the studio lot, and kept it as freewheeling as the Southern California locations we saw onscreen. The Rockford Files’ tone-perfect medley of comedy, drama and thriller was a template for quality US television to come, and all that was there in Garner’s performance. Never humourless nor too frivolous; a hero you could believe in because he didn’t believe in it himself. Unlike most sanctimonious American TV protagonists, Garner never pretended Rockford wasn’t out for himself.

Rockford of Ages.

Rockford of Ages.

Despite a string of memorable and game-changing performances in a host of movies, Garner always went back to TV in the end. Whether it was the Rockford Files TV movies (which, oddly, didn’t disgrace the original), a series of beloved Polaroid commercials with actress Mariette Hartley harking back to the repartee of romantic screwball comedies, or replacing the late John Ritter as the patriarch on sitcom 8 Simple Rules. Rather than trashing television as so many Hollywood movie stars have, he decided instead to make it better, either by seeking out the best material or improving drastically on the worst. After Garner was through with television, it didn’t look like there was a distinction between TV and the movies any more. It would be impossible to find two better performances in television than Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but James Garner always meant more than the sum of his parts.

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.

TV Blinded Me With Science

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Steward

As if you needed me to tell you, the finale of Breaking Bad was aired on Sunday night. The build-up to this television event was swathed in publicity and hype and the show has been swaddled in blanket praise for some time now. Cyberspace is awash with bloggers and reviewers telling you what they thought about the finale, and I don’t really have anything to add, except to say that if the best shows have the most unremarkable endings then Breaking Bad is in contention for greatness. It seems everyone-including the show’s creator-is at a loss to explain why Breaking Bad has been so successful, especially as later seasons attempted to alienate viewers with their unremitting darkness. Another recent television event might help us understand.

Ricky Tomlinson in Controversial Last-Minute Casting Change For ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale.

Last week, eponymous host of 90s’ educational children’s TV show Bill Nye The Science Guy (for British readers think a hipster nerd Johnny Ball) survived the first elimination of ABC’s ballroom competition Dancing with the Stars despite a performance roundly panned by the judges, although if they’d changed the style of dance to ‘David Byrne’ it would have been tens all around. Nye was rescued by the popular vote after his Nutty Professor-themed dance to 80s cult movie soundtrack classic ‘Weird Science’ went viral. Despite an injury-enforced exit from the show this week, Nye’s routines remain this season’s hottest properties. The common denominator in these two unlikely successes is science. Is it pure coincidence or serendipitous discovery and are American TV viewers blinded by science?

Bill Nye channelling David Byrne.

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. For years, House, a medical show about diagnostic research, beat out the competition from doctoperas like Grey’s Anatomy. Regardless of genre, shows slanted towards the scientific are bound to come out on top. CSI, the most popular cop show on TV, is about forensic scientists and recently there’s been a string of TV hits based around specialists consulting on criminal investigations such as Lie to Me and Perception, the latter beginning each week with a neuroscience lecture.

Perception, a class in TV!

It’s true that the conversations you’ll see about Breaking Bad in the press and social media probably won’t mention the show’s scientific content, except perhaps as a joke (‘kids now want to take up chemistry’ etc.) but it can’t simply be ignored either. Chemistry, physics and biology feature most typically as a way for the characters to get out of a corner, so Walt’s knowledge of the dissolving qualities of various acids helps him dispose of a body and a home-made car battery prevents Walt and Jesse dying in the desert. In this sense, science figures in much the same way it did in MacGyver, where the protagonist’s knowledge of physical sciences was a resource for removing jeopardy when only everyday items were at hand.

Breaking MacGyver.

But science in Breaking Bad is not simply a MacGuffin (or ‘Macgyvfin’) but the trigger for the entire programme. In the Pilot episode, Walt reminds us that his cooking of an unusually high-purity meth product, his route into the international drug trade, is just ‘basic chemistry’. It’s his culture’s treatment of scientists that puts him in the dilemma where meth-cooking is a viable option in the first place. While the more business-savvy of his former research colleagues soar to unlimited wealth, the true scientific genius is forced to take a severely underpaid and unfulfilling high school chemistry teaching job which can’t make up the numbers once he needs costly medical treatments. In turn, each character’s fate becomes tied to how much they know about science.

The Science of Good Television

Following a week in which the talk about American TV was centred on two scientists, Walter White and Bill Nye, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s some sort of cultural fascination with science at play here. I’m not naïve enough to think that the viewing public is interested in using TV to get a scientific education but they’re certainly fond of watching scientists and having the paraphernalia of science on their screens. Maybe Americans are dying to have educated experts telling them what’s going on, something conspicuously lacking in TV news and reality, or maybe there’s something attractive and compelling about TV scientists that makes people want to follow and support them, regardless of their failures and flaws.

 

Jumping The Arc

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

I’m not one to ignore the advice of Public Enemy but I believe the hype. American television is as good as it’s ever been. Full of rich and varied programmes that are as emotionally compelling as they are artfully composed, flush with writers, directors and producers who recognise and understand the craft of good television (many of them the same) and boasting a success rate that easily surpasses American cinema. It’s only because I feel this way that I’m willing to tolerate the abominations of storytelling that even the finest shows on the air serve up on a weekly basis. The people behind American TV have a right to be complacent, and with complacency comes bad habits. A plague of lazy short-cuts and downright sloppiness has spread exponentially through US TV writing and several worrying tendencies have emerged. Here’s a run-down of some of the worst inclinations and their hosts:

Flashbacks/Flashforwards:

I’ve seen the future…and it is confusing!

As far as I’m concerned, if you need to use a flashback or a flashforward at any point in your screenplay you’ve not written the scenes in the present well enough. There are exceptions-like biographies-but the TV shows I’m talking about don’t fall into any of those categories. Great new series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead regularly go back and forth on their timelines, and increasingly wield these digressions as banners for the programme. Going back in time serves to fill in story gaps, underlining how badly communicated previous episodes were and alerting viewers to missed opportunities. Looking ahead creates an enigma then made comprehensible by the subsequent action, betraying a (usually undue) lack of faith in the material of the episodes to sustain interest in their own rights. Moreover, these displacements in time interrupt the forward momentum that these shows thrive upon to compel further viewing.

Cast Montages:

There’s only one way this can end…with a montage.

Ever wondered what all the characters in a show are doing at a given time? Me neither. Yet still the most common device for bringing a programme’s ensemble cast together within a single scene is a montage sketching each character’s activities at a time of day (typically morning or night). While this technique usually reveals something essential and often surprising about one or two of the characters, others are left to make up the numbers as they can’t all be doing something profound at exactly the same moment. Most shows manage to keep this tendency to a single scene at the beginning or end of an episode but series like Sons of Anarchy now feature multiple cast montages scattered randomly throughout each instalment, the only means of keeping track of the show’s surplus of sub-plots. There must be subtler, more sustainable ways of getting everybody in one place.

Song Overlays:

Coldplay: ruining American TV since 2002.

Nothing dates faster than music. Despite this truism, American TV shows continue to overlay scenes with contemporary songs that will likely only be considered respectable in the moment they’re first transmitted. Remember when The Shield ended its first season with a musical montage using Coldplay’s ‘Spider Webs’. That was in 2002 when the band still had cache and fed into the alternative style the show was cultivating. Now that Coldplay embody corporate bland, the sequence looks and sounds like middlebrow advertising. Series continue to make the same mistakes by selecting the latest hipster warbles rather than looking for the transcendent instrumentals that will preserve them throughout history. The choices tend to reflect the producers’ record collection rather than being linked to character or place. The Walking Dead would like us to believe that a teenage girl from a remote Atlanta farm has committed Tom Waits B-sides to memory.

Showrunners Writing:

‘Mr Darabont…step away from the script!’

While I’m grateful for all they do to put a programme on the air and keep it in good shape, I wish showrunners would keep their hands off the teleplay. They seem to have a knack for writing the weakest and most mechanical episodes and the ones most concerned with the image of the show not the art of television. Without the might of Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont behind it, The Walking Dead may never have reached TV screens but the couple of episodes he wrote that headed up the series seemed incapable of articulating how the show would progress as a long-form narrative (rather than a 2-hour zombie movie) which is essential to establish in the pilot stages of a series. As soon as the writing responsibilities passed to serial TV veterans Glen Mazzara and Charles H. Eglee, the ongoing vision for the programme became evident.

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