Telly Head No. 2:- Just why is Breaking Bad, so Bloody Good?

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I’m simply unable to hold myself back from reviewing this exceptional show any longer. I’d initially planned to do a Telly Head retrospective at the end of the present fourth season, but having just witnessed yet another immaculate 45 minutes of television (Episode 4:7, Problem Dog) I have to fast-forward the timescale a little. For some inexplicable reason Breaking Bad, despite awards galore and a hardcore following of around two million people, hasn’t really been well served by British broadcasters. Buried away at the backend of FiveUSA’s schedules, or dropped from FX’s sparkling roster of shows, barely two seasons of this intense psycho-drama have been readily available on UK television screens. That’s why it comes as no real surprise that the general recognition level, of what may now be AMC’s premiere show (even taking into account Mad Men), is pretty poor across the UK media and television viewing population.

On paper it’s partly understandable, as the concept for the show seems a pretty hard sell. The general plotline can be summed up as follows:-

A depressed chemical engineer, stuck in a high-school teaching job that bores him, finds out that he has cancer and maybe only a few months to live. Realising that he has achieved nothing with his intellect and scientific talent and that his wife and partially disabled teenage son are going to be left in penurious financial straits, he desperately tries to plot a path toward a financial nest-egg for his family. Stumbling upon a drug-dealing former pupil, the chemistry teacher see’s the possibility of entering into a partnership with this hapless young tearaway, one that will see him manufacture the best crystal meth in New Mexico, whilst the former pupil takes care of the dealing side of the operation. Pretty rapidly the teacher and his former pupil/new business partner find themselves in way over their heads.

Breaking Bad also doesn’t take the preferred route of easing the audience into its narrative slowly. The pilot episode begins with a pre-credit sequence (a device that is used frequently by the show to add layers of intrigue and narrative dynamism) that shows the chemistry teacher Walter White (played superbly by Malcolm in the Middle co-star Bryan Cranston) driving a Winnebago at high-speed through a desolate desert landscape. Walter is wearing a gas mask and is dressed only in his white Y-fronts, whilst an unconscious figure, that will turn out to be the former pupil Jesse Pinkman (an equally strong performance from Aaron Paul), rolls across the dashboard on the passenger side. Crashing the Winnebago off the road, police sirens can be heard closing in and Walter runs from the vehicle, tearing his gas mask off his face. After a moment of frustrated gesticulation, Walter grabs a camcorder, a gun and a shirt, from the Winnebago and then rushes past two prone bodies in the back of the vehicle to grab his possessions. Outside, with the sirens even louder, he films a gut-wrenching apology to his wife and son, before taking to the centre of the road, in a nonchalant John Wayne pose, and pointing the gun in the direction of the oncoming police cars. Cue opening Periodic Table credit sequence.

So disconcerting and disorienting is this opening sequence that I can fully understand why many viewers fail to make it much further into the show. Breaking Bad takes a dispersed approach toward time, subtly winding its way backwards, forwards and sideways through its narrative, without ever sacrificing its reckless forward momentum (initially an extension of Walter’s new found impulsivity in the face of his cancer). Events frequently occur out-of-sequence, with some only being elucidated seasons later. As well as this careering, headlong approach to narrative, the show also is not afraid to stand time on its head, taking a whole episode to fixate on the central pairing’s pursuit of a fly in their meth factory. Generally Breaking Bad’s narrative arc is unlike anything else on television, as it manages to mine deep caverns of pathos, whilst providing the kind of energetic, action-packed excitement of a mid-eighties Hollywood blockbuster and the unremitting tension of the very best Polanski or Hitchcock thriller.

Furthermore there is a grimly black humour at work amidst the dramatic concerns. In only the second episode (1:2 Cat’s in the Bag…) Walter and Jesse find themselves having to dissolve some bodies in acid. Jesse opts to do this in his upstairs bathtub, only for the acid to eat through the bathtub and the floor, depositing some very messy remains all over his aunt’s downstairs hallway. It is sequences like this that Breaking Bad excels at, as no other show has continually pushed into seriously uncomfortable terrain whilst continuing to deepen your affection, or understanding of the central characters.

Another ingenious aspect of the show is the way in which it rations out the main speaking roles. Breaking Bad has a ridiculously small cast for a major drama series, which has allowed Gilligan and his co-writers to focus their considerable energies on creating 8-10 really strong characters, something that shows like The Wire and Mad Men have neither sought to do, nor even really needed to do. Breaking Bad is a very different beast from these heavily-acclaimed contemporaries. In terms of tone, or attitude, it bears a stronger comparison with Shawn Levy’s cop drama The Shield. However, whereas that drama depended upon an episodic, fragmentary structure and the charisma of its central character, Breaking Bad has increasingly developed ever more densely structured plotlines, switching the focus of the show from Walter, to the characters of Jesse, Skyler (Walter’s wife, played by Anna Gunn) and Hank Schrader (Walter’s brother-in-law and DEA agent, played by Dean Norris).

Season after season Breaking Bad has improved and refined its formula, until by the middle of the third season that formula seemed to consist of an impressive capability to convincingly realise the completely unexpected. Anyone who managed to get over Breaking Bad’s initial strong medicine, will have been amazed by the richness of the character development throughout season’s three and four. As Walter and Jesse’s relationship has gradually shifted from one of teacher and pupil, to a much more ambiguous dependence, so the narrative possibilities have multiplied exponentially. Has any other show dealt with such a mixture of thematic concerns as:- the realisation of one’s impending mortality; the moral transcendence of murder; the graphic effects of hardcore drug dependency; the difficulties of having a physically disabled first child; the impulsive kleptomania that acts as an easy, if ineffective, balm to bland, consumerist living; the sheer arduousness of recuperation from partial paralysis; the idea that the drugs trade is an industry that exists due to the inability to institute free markets; the notion of gradual, creeping corruption (very similar to The Shield and The Soprano’s); the brutishness of power; the ability to do anything once you are aware that nothing has value; the compulsive need to lie to protect a lie; and the singularly abhorrent culture we have created that allows us to indulge our basest impulses, whilst shirking responsibility for absolutely everything else.

It is this latter theme that has been to the fore in the major plotlines of this fourth season, with so many peripheral characters now entangled in Walter’s quick-fix solution to his ‘worthless’ existence. Jesse, played to the hilt by Aaron Paul, has become a character overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of his actions and appalled by the almost complete absence of guilt that he feels. In Pinkman, Breaking Bad, has presented us with the first television character to question the very idea of ‘pain’. For Jesse Pinkman, his pain appears to be utterly divorced from his actions and his experiences, it has become a hideously indulgent thing, merely serving to remind him that nothing he has done is truly being ‘punished’. There is no retribution here and in the absence of retribution, the purgatory that Pinkman seemed to at first inhabit, has merely become an aperture through which he can perceive the utter meaningless of his every move.

Early in the show’s run Walter tells his class about the major lesson of chemistry, all things ‘change’, nothing remains in its initial state. Breaking Bad has pushed this theory to its very limits in an all too human way. Ultimately, Walter finds himself now hanging on, like a prisoner, just trying to maintain the status quo, falling back into familiar patterns of anger, frustration, hubris, guilt and recalcitrance. It is with Jesse Pinkman that we see the utter flux of human existence, as his character absolutely refuses to remain locked in place, even though he is abundantly aware of the continued futility of action. Being a show that is obsessed with the idea of ‘nothing’, Breaking Bad has all of the propulsive dynamism that comes from both the horror and the acceptance of such a state.

MINOR-LEAGUE MUSINGS:- Vince Gilligan, whilst being interviewed regarding the creative process on season 3 of the show, said the following:-

“We’re actively moving these chess pieces around, not so much playing 10 or 15 or 20 moves ahead, but we are kind of running for our lives. It’s scary. I don’t want it to sound like it’s a slapdash operation. It doesn’t feel that way when we’re doing it. We put a lot of thought into everything, and we try to play the game several moves ahead. But we’re only human, and it’s tricky sometime. All of this is a long-winded way of saying this was not pre-planned from the get-go. It was kind of a living, breathing thing that took on a life of its own as the season went along.”.

Perhaps this goes some of the way to explaining the unique qualities of the show. I also have to take a second to mention the sterling work of three of the supporting actors onboard. The comedian Bob Odenkirk is the absolute definition of unscrupulous, in the role of the shyster lawyer Saul Goodman (not his real name, but chosen because of the Jewish cache). Giancarlo Esposito’s druglord Gustavo Fring is one of the most chilling screen creation’s since Kurt Sutter’s turn as Margos Dezerian in The Shield. Whilst Jonathan Banks Mr. Fixit, Mike, is an insane mixture of zen-like, droopy-jowelled calm and ruthlessly efficient violence.

Breaking Bad is currently midway through its fourth season on AMC. The first and second seasons have appeared on FiveUSA, but the first season originally aired on FX in the UK. There are currently no UK rights holders for the third season.


Telly Head No.1:- Shawn Ryan’s The Chicago Code and Lifetimes’ Against the Wall

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Crime and Corruption in the Second City

It has been a while since America’s second city has been spoiled for so much media attention. In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election as US President, particularly with his strong connections to the controversial new Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Chicago has seen a flurry of news coverage seeking to detail the perennial municipal in-fighting against corruption, greed and speculation. Fox News have, at times, seemed to make it their personal mission to find out exactly which closet houses the most damaging of Obama’s skeletons, or failing that Rahm Emanuel’s. So it seems a potentially provocative move for the Fox Network to give primetime exposure to Ryan’s cop show follow-up to The Shield, the Jennifer Beals vehicle The Chicago Code.

Ryan won much acclaim for the muscular story-telling and ragged urban authenticity of The Shield, a show that also dwelt upon the damaging effects of systemic corruption. The critical bar would have already been raised quite high for any future programme he cared to produce, but a return to the cop show format sees not only the increased potential for unfavourable comparison, but also begs the question as to what else Ryan has in his repertoire. Not only The Shield has raised the qualitative bar on the police drama. HBO’s critically-lauded five-series, Baltimore-based, epic The Wire, showed the potential for extending the scope of the cop show beyond the daily battle with ‘crims’, ‘perps’ and ‘pimps’. David Simon’s textured analysis of the way in which the police and legal systems interact with other facets of municipal society (such as education, the media, local governance, the unions and big business), in effect, drew up a new paradigm for intelligent police drama.

The Chicago Code thus comes to us with a lot of excess baggage dangling from its take on the Windy City’s law enforcement. For Ryan and lead actress Beals it is seen as something of a homecoming affair, as they both grew up in the city. This is a tricky issue to get around, as although knowledge of the local colour can certainly lend a project authenticity, it can also sentimentalise certain aspects of the urban reality portrayed, softening the edges of a drama, in a way that just wouldn’t happen with the coldly apprehending outside eye (even Simon wasn’t from Baltimore, but moved to the city).

The most immediately noteworthy aspect of The Chicago Code is its preference for the high gloss approach of a CSI or NCIS. High-Definition camerawork is used throughout and lends the visual depictions of the city a majestic quality, emphasising that stellar skyline in all of its imposing grandeur. However, it also creates a more obviously cinematic feel that was absent from the in-yer-face ‘realism’ of The Shield, or the sombre, downbeat hyper-realism of The Wire. The Code is obviously Network television and as the medium dictates it must have a degree more bombast and plasticity than its rootsier Satellite predecessors.

It feels almost unfair to draw comparisons as, if anything, The Chicago Code appears to be geared much more toward a straight, no-frills entertainment approach to television. Ryan is clearly not seeking to mine the extensive Machiavellian networks of The Wire, even with his intriguing focus on city hall corruption and the wonderful historical asides that offer contextualization to the series title – The Chicago Code is shorthand for corruption and devious politicking. Whilst any attempts at plumbing some of the societal depths of The Shield is precluded by Fox’s placement of The Chicago Code upon its primetime roster. No, this was always unlikely to be a ‘ground-breaking’ next step in the police procedural, but that shouldn’t necessarily be used as a stick to beat it with.

One thing Ryan cannot fail to deliver are characters with which an audience instinctively believe, even to the extent where they will suspend their potential disbelief at some of the wilder plot machinations and contrivances. The strength of The Shield was primarily the characterisation. Without that bond with Vic Mackey and his various associates, it would have been virtually unthinkable for the series finale to have worked. The Chicago Code is likewise populated by some intriguing characters, prime amongst them the wayward Alderman Gibbons (played by British actor Delroy Lindo) and the loose-cannon cop Jarek Wysocki (another exceptional turn from Australian actor Jason Clarke).

Wysocki is the character through which most viewers will enter into the world of the show. With his various codes of honour, his intuitive understanding of exactly what the job requires, his prickly personality and dogged determination, Wysocki is classic Ryan material and Brotherhood star Jason Clarke fleshes him out charismatically and convincingly. An early sequence in which Wysocki goes to church only to reveal the extents of his agnosticism and also his vengeful desire to bring his brother’s killer(s) to justice, is just the kind of morally ambiguous scene that Ryan has made his own.

However, Clarke’s hard work is rivalled by the equally impressive efforts of veteran character actor Delroy Lindo. As Alderman Gibbons, the man with his sweaty, money-grubbing, hands very much on the city’s coffers, Lindo is an enigma, but an enthralling one at that. Yes, he may well superficially seem an equally corrupt cousin of Isaih Washington Jnr.’s Clay Davis character in The Wire, however Lindo’s Alderman isn’t just about corruption, or what he can get from a situation. Gibbons is constantly preaching the necessity of ensuring that ‘everyone is happy’, the assumption being that he is the man to provide this happiness. The shuttling around of criminal and municipal funds – the Alderman is in bed with the Irish mob – is certainly making Gibbons a rich man, but that is just a byproduct of his ‘service’ to the community that has elected him; a service he hopes to extend to the city when he is appointed mayor.

The Chicago Code’s first, and only, season, is then setup as a cat and mouse game between the powerful and corrupt black Alderman and his wayward police force (as he is also the Police Commissioner), headed up by the newly appointed Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), a bi-racial young woman in what many amongst the rank and file view as an experienced man’s job. Colvin’s early decision to tackle systemic corruption in the police is to go against the snake at the top, who effectively put her in post, as he believed she would be the most amenable to his pressures and his charms (a flawed piece of plotting). Whereas The Shield saw the cancer of corruption spread out and engulf a whole department bit-by-bit, The Chicago Code is a much cleaner and more straight-forward affair, with Beals’ character in particular being the morally clean, beating heart of the drama. This scalpel approach that Ryan has taken, robs the drama of a little heft, making it seem a far too simplistic reading of the various rights and wrongs of a policeman’s lot.

Infuriatingly the show does improve as it hurtles on through its condensed first season storyline and there is an argument to be made that if Ryan had been ‘greenlit’ a second season The Chicago Code may well have got increasingly more challenging and complex. Despite some strong criticism from the boys in blue that it portrays, the series certainly had a certain dramatic flair about it, particularly in its final third. As it is Fox and Ryan have delivered a highly polished police entertainment that falls somewhere between the by-numbers watchability of a CSI and the superior drama of The Shield and The Wire.

With the Chicago PD being the focus of Ryan’s drama, a new show on Universal’s Lifetime channel – a channel dedicated to women’s interest programming – takes a slightly different and generally odd approach to the police procedural. Against the Wall, that has just begun its first season, is a retro-cop drama in the mould of a Due South, or The Commish (Chiklis’ first brush with policing). What is unique about it is that its central character, Kowalski (also played by an all too convincing Aussie in Rachel Carpani), is a young police academy graduate who has just made detective and opts to go to the only department with a vacancy, Internal Affairs. If this wasn’t interesting enough dramatic fare, then the creators complicate things further by making Kowalski that most Chicagoan of characters, a born police officer. Chicago PD has a reputation for being very much a family affair and here Kowalski has three brothers and a father (played by Treat Williams) whom all are beat cops. Thus part of the drama is exploring the rarely seen world of the Internal Affairs officer, whilst the other is mining, in typical Lifetime fashion, the issues of a woman making her own way in a man’s world and going against the express wishes of her male family members.

The show has a by-numbers quality about it, exuding none of the class of The Chicago Code and none of the authoritative realism of an NYPD Blue, Hillstreet Blues or The Wire. Its lead actress is engaging, if a little lightweight and there is a sense that in this first episode the pieces are being rather awkwardly arranged upon the board. In amongst the soft-focus drama there are strong performances from Treat Williams and Kathy Baker, as Kowalski’s mother and father respectively. The end of this first episode does introduce an intriguing element of drama in which Kowalski finds herself having to investigate her own brother (and the only male family member of her family who has any sympathy for her plight). I’m not sure that Against the Wall will see the viewer reaping much of a reward on whatever time they invest, but it at least deserves a mention for trying to explore an area of law enforcement that is too often neglected, or introduced solely as a means of accelerating other plots (Forest Whitaker’s appearance in The Shield, being a great example of the latter). Chicago has many reasons to thank its latest adopted son, but these new televisual offerings, riding along on the coattails of increased interest in the city’s political shenanigans, probably aren’t going to be the best remembered of them.

MINOR-LEAGUE MUSINGS:- Did anyone else find Billy Corgan’s title track for The Chicago Code both irritating and catchy in extremis. Ol’ Cueball Humourlessness clearly thought he was doing a great job with the lyrical shorthand and although it pains me to say it, those lyrics have been drilled into my head over the 13 enforced listens of them – ‘whose gonna drive you home’ indeed.

The Chicago Code ended its season run in May in the US and has since been aired on Sky TV in the UK. Against the Wall is a currently airing Lifetime drama premiere, with, as yet, no plans to screen it in the UK.