Sunday, January 27, 2008

Breaking Bad: A big old messy-mess

Spoilers for "Breaking Bad" episode two coming up just as soon as I flip a coin...

When you have an offbeat drama that ends its first episode with an unexpected murder or two, chances are your second episode is going to be about disposing of the corpse(s). "The Black Donnellys," for instance, followed that pattern last season, but at least they had solved the dead body problem by the end of show two, where here "Breaking Bad" is stretching out the problem -- with the wrinkle of a body that should be dead but isn't -- into next week.

I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad idea in this case. You hear a premise like "chemistry teacher starts cooking crystal meth," you might think wacky hijinks (even with the whole lung cancer issue), something as relatively lightweight as "Weeds." Clearly, Walt thought something similar: he'd hang out with his ex-student, cook some meth and make money for Skyler and Walter Jr., no fuss, no muss. The show and Walt's life of crime are both turning out to be a lot uglier than that, and so spending a few episodes depicting the inefficiency of corpse disposal -- and, more importantly, the ethical dilemma of what to do with a man who once tried to kill you but isn't an immediate threat right this second -- doesn't seem like a bad idea.

But, man, is it dark. And slow. Vince Gilligan has adequately put me into Walt's head to experience the horror of all this, but there's a part of me that wishes he would take the easy way out and just tell a lot of jokes about Bryan Cranston in his tightie-whities, you know?

In fairness, Gilligan mixed in some very funny moments, like Jesse's obnoxious ghetto boy answering machine message (which got more amusing the second time), or Jesse ranting about the sanctity of the coin flip, or (my favorite) Walt sliding their prisoner an entire bathroom's worth of stuff. (That gag reminded me, oddly, of Ned Flanders' elaborate hot chocolate making scene in "The Simpsons Movie.") Cranston and Aaron Paul have very quickly established a comic rhythm -- see also the "Because somehow it seemed preferable to telling her I cook crystal meth and killed a man" argument -- and Cranston was superb again in the darker scenes, like Walt at the ultrasound appointment realizing that he wouldn't be around for his daughter's life.

I just feel very adrift when I watch the show. I recognize that's the point. I just don't know if it's a feeling I'm ready to experience on a weekly basis.

What did everybody else think?


Noel Murray said...

I'd say kick back and enjoy the ride, Alan. Where you saw a plot dragging out, I saw tension, wit, and an emphasis on living with a complex, engaging character as he sweats out a crisis. There are some themes developing slowly here too--dig that thalidomide speech for a case-in-point--but first and foremost this show is about a guy pushed out to the edge. So far I'm having a hard time catching my breath.

(But then I don't get HBO and don't get to watch THE WIRE, so for me right now, until LOST starts up again this week, BREAKING BAD is the best show on TV.)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Noel. I was intrigued by Episode One, but this one really sealed the deal. I like how Walt's meth-dealing scheme *immediately* gets short-circuited, with two dead bodies and a lifetime of regret right from the word "go." I also have an affection for any film or television show that deals with the sheer physical (not to mention moral) difficulty of corpse disposal. I'm reminded a little of BLOOD SIMPLE, in which pools of blood cause an almost CAT IN THE HAT-like mess. And Cranston is a revelation: That scene with his wife getting the sonogram hit just about every note an actor can hit.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to see how Breaking Bad can keep up both the slow pace and the dark humor for even an AMC-length season (~13 episodes, I assume). But I find Cranston's performance compelling; I can't help but see White as a dark reimagining of Cranston's Hal on Malcolm -- both characters display this mix of desperation, mania, familial love, good intentions, horrible instincts, and nudity that is both deeply sad and terribly funny. So I'll probably stick around to see how all of this plays out. I'm particularly curious about how White reveals his cancer to his family. Does he use the cancer to cover up or to justify his relationship with Pinkman? Ad more mundanely, how is White going to make any money at the rate he's going?

At the very least, even if the show falls apart, I'm hoping it falls apart with a bang. The closing shot of the little girl wearing the gas mask was so sweetly ominous that I wished I hadn't caught the preview for next week.


Minor science geek question for anyone who might know: I knew where the HF storyline was going as soon as Pinkman started dragging the body up the stairs -- but is there any reason for a high school to have that much HF in storage? This isn't so much a nitpick about the show as a question about what sort of high school experiments HF is good for,if any.

Anonymous said...

I like this show so far. The deliberate pace is something praise-worthy.

Why did the creator have Walt's son with CP? Will this become a bigger plot point as the story progresses? Or is it a quick way to show Walt's circumstance? Or is it just an attempt to bring diversity to the show (diversity doesn't just mean race)?

Anonymous said...

It's got a slower pace and less flat-out humor, but shares some of the Coen Brothers' sensibilities. I thought this was an improvement over the first episode, and I like the darkness. I'll stick with it a while and see where it goes...

Anonymous said...

This is easily the most compelling, interesting, and watchable series on television. It is like a more-relatable "Dexter".

What Alan calls "slow", I call thorough. All too many series would zoom right by the realities of your first dealings in drugs and a dead body. There is no more critical time period in terms of telling this particular realistic story than the first few days of Walt's "breaking bad". I truly admire the fact that they are showing so much of this, and taking their time to examine the emotional impact and the grim reality. It would be a lazy crime to have it all wrapped up in a tidy bow in the second episode, and then just show wacky adventures even though Walt has just killed someone for the first time, and has to try to do so again without it being self-defense. How this show is handling it -thoughtful and real, not "slow"- has sealed it for me too. I'm in.

The more I read your lavish praise for "Chuck", and your waning interest in "Breaking Bad", the more I think what you fundamentally want in a television show differs greatly from my desires. "Chuck" is about as formulaic as they come. There was no difference in structure in at least half of the episodes shown - Chuck and Sarah pine, the Buy More crew IS WACKY, the spies go to some location and do bad kung-fu, happy ending with a dumb "music montage" that is plaguing all of network TV. All in 45 minutes, rinse and repeat.

Yet you place it in the "Best of 2007" and continue to insist it is inspired. I like you Alan, but I truly wonder if the name "Josh Schwartz" and your O.C./Book connection with him wasn't associated with "Chuck", would you feel the same? Not that you aren't entitled to your opinions of course, but I just find that your love for something as mindless and tired as "Chuck" isn't changing your brain chemistry in a way that sours you to "Breaking Bad". In many ways, I find their storytelling and approach to be polar opposites, and I guess my hope would be that a writer as influential as you would have sided with BB more than Chuck. But since Chuck is on network tv, and BB is on rinky-dink AMC cable, perhaps I am the one who is out of touch.

Karen said...
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Karen said...

Undercover Asian Man, I think maybe you're being a little tough on Alan. Yes, "Chuck" is somewhat formualaic, and Alan has addressed that. But it also has some wonderful performances, especially from Zach Levy and Adam Baldwin, and impressive character development. It's like "House"--everyone knows that show is staggeringly formulaic, but Hugh Laurie keeps you coming back.

But I agreed with Alan about "Breaking Bad." Cranston is mesmerizing, the story is interesting, it's to be commended for addressing the moral dilemmas of Cranston's character as well as the logistics of body disposal, but it really DOES move slowly. It has humor, it has conflict, it has drama..what it doesn't have is pacing. I'll keep watching it, because it's compelling and I want to see where it goes, but I don't get excited about Sunday nights, if you know what I mean.

Alan Sepinwall said...

UAM, a few points:

1)I wrote the O.C. book and like Chuck because I'm a fan of Schwartz's sense of humor. I'm friendly with lots of producers whose stuff I don't always like (you'll note with Schwartz I haven't written about Gossip Girl in forever).

2)Complaining that Chuck was on my top 10 list and that I'm not praiseworthy enough of Breaking Bad seems a logical fallacy, as BB wasn't on TV in 2007. For all I know, by the time we get to the end of these seven episodes (the show was planned for a nine-episode first season, which the strike truncated), I may love it enough to stick it on next year's list.

3)I've got no problem with a measured pace. My favorite drama of all time is The Wire, and TV doesn't move any slower than that. But when The Wire takes its time, I always have the feeling it's building to something that will make the pace worthwhile. Breaking Bad might very well do the same, but at this point I don't know.

4)As I've said many times in defense of my fondness for fluffier shows like Chuck or Burn Notice or NCIS or Bones, I need variety in my life. I couldn't watch a weekly TV schedule containing nothing but stuff as intense and/or thought-provoking as The Wire or Dexter or Mad Men (which also moved damn slow, but I didn't mind). Sometimes, something silly and even formulaic is just what the doctor ordered, and Chuck is enough fun that I don't care how formulaic it is.

K J Gillenwater said...

Slow? You've got to be kidding me. I've never laughed out loud longer and louder for a tv show. Hilarious dark comedy. Oh, my God!

When the supposedly dead body started breathing again....and then the acid in the bathtub. Surprised me with the awfulness and the mess they were throwing Walter's way.

I can't wait for next week. There is nothing slow and plodding about this show. I like that they are taking time with each step, rather than breeze through everything. That would seem to clean and too Hollywood. This is messy and crazy and funny and real. Real as far as how a 'normal' person would react to figuring out he had to kill someone...again. Or melt them in acid.

This show is fantastic!

Anonymous said...

I'm kinda on both sides of the fence. I'm down with a deliberate pace but it's going on episode three and it's still the same 24 or 48 hours at most. Let's ... move ... on ....!

That being said, I was laughing at the dark comedy the whole time. Pretty much anything Jesse says is golden ("But we flipped a coin, dude!"). And I had to pause the DVR to laugh when the last thing Walter slid over was the hand sanitizer. I'm glad the PCH-ers from Veronica Mars are still finding work (first Weevil on FNL and now Cervando on this show).

Anonymous said...

With this show, it is simply to early to kill. It was also expected to go up against a full schedule. None of us saw the strike happening until it did and it continued.

This show is amazing. They are letting it build, and I'm sure that they assumed that they would have a season for it on AMC. Mad Men did exactly the same thing, and turned out to be AMAZING. And it was and will never be cut down midseason.

Unfortunately, most of the fluff and fun is going into or are in reruns. This was a midseason entry, has a few episodes, and it is not their job to fill in for Law & Order: SVU.

It is a show that was meant to show up with others around it. Right now it stands out as some of the only original programming around that is also rather challenging. Change the channel and it's football or reruns.

Rethink this, Alan.

Logan McDermott said...

Wow. Slow? I really didn't think these 2 episodes have been slow at all. Although, the only other TV show I'm really watching right now is "The Wire", and as Alan said TV doesn't get much slower then that.

I am lovin' everything about this show at the moment. Almost everything about Jesse makes me laugh. Maybe it's because I'm around the same age as him and have known a bunch of stoners that are similar to him, although not to his extremes. I wish I could have gotten a close up shot of his webpage. All I could make out was "MILFS, MILFS, MILFS, MILFS." and "Education: The streets, yo!". Plus his answering machine his absolutely ridiculous and hilarious at the same time.

Logan McDermott said...

Undercover Asian Man said...

This is easily the most compelling, interesting, and watchable series on television.

I'm sorry but when "The Wire" is currently airing and you say a comment like this, I must say Blasphemy! "The Wire" is easily the most compelling, interesting, and watchable series ever made.

R.A. Porter said...

undercover asian man said:
This is easily the most compelling, interesting, and watchable series on television. It is like a more-relatable "Dexter".

See, this is why people feel sorry for TheWife. I had to ask her what a "normal" person would do if someone they'd tried to off with phosgene gas - in self-defense - ended up clinging to life. I'd have finished him like Mr. Wolf. Apparently I was right to guess that's not normal. It's cold and efficient, but not normal. So unlike UAM, I can relate to Dex a whole lot easier.

My psychological problems aside, there were some things about this episode that really bugged me. Skyler seemed a little too suspicious about Jesse. I realize she was worried and upset about Walt's odd behavior, but I thought her efforts at tracking Jesse down were a little over the top. Beyond that, threatening him to get him to stop selling Walt pot? If she's so attuned to her husband's mood and behavior that she already knew he was acting oddly, why hasn't she noticed his persistent, rib-racking cough enough to be worried about it? Maybe she should ask herself why her husband is coughing non-stop, cut-off from her, and suddenly smoking pot.

As for the show's pace, I wish they'd actually slow down more. First season of Twin Peaks covered what, a week? Let's see Breaking Bad do the same.