Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The New American Classic

"Do you really want to live in a world without Coca Cola?" - Heisenberg

For the past 15 years or so, it has been almost impossible to stop and pick up a book without it being required of me.  The internet has simply made information much more accessible, dominating how we consume media, distilling small personal insights into a Buzzfeed or a Huffington Post article.

Still, my greatest inspiration is literature, books that fulfill their timeless nature of recording human insight passed down generations.  In America, these books have taken form of epic novels.  The great American novel has been the impetus for a lot of cultural, social and political change over the past 250 or so years.

There is a completeness about good literature, the feeling that the writer has included everything that needed to be said about a story.  Since the mind is limitless in imagination, there's no avenue that can't be explored by a writer, they are free to create worlds however they see fit.  Whenever a movie gets made from a book, it's not uncommon to hear readers of the original claim that "the book was better", as the imagined world is not limited by constraints of production value and profitability.

It's not a coincidence that the "second golden age" of television has also come about these past 15 years.  With the advent of DVR, HDTV, DVD/Bluray sets and the internet, the production value and quality of television shows have changed dramatically.  Previously, television shows where each episode continues a longer story arc were looked on as a risk, because they alienated new viewers, and created confusion if you missed an episode.  In the late 90s and early 2000s, these shows caught fire, shows such as the Sopranos, the Wire, 24 and Lost.  They had almost cult-like followings and ushered in this new age of storytelling.  Nowadays, groups occasionally get together to watch the newest episode of their favorite shows, there are even bars in NYC that had nights hosting viewings of shows like "Lost".

15 years ago, a show like Breaking Bad would not have been made.  AMC, an up and coming cable TV network started to find original content for TV shows in the early 2000's, and took a chance on a show other networks about a 1960's advertising creative director now known as Mad Men.  When Vince Gilligan pitched the story to HBO, they essentially told him to GTFO.  AMC, soon after winning critical acclaim with Mad Men and eager to develop its clout as a original content provider contender, took on the pitch and agreed to a deal to broadcast the greatest TV show ever.

There is probably nothing I can say about Breaking Bad that hasn't already been said or unpacked by various media outlets.  (And there probably isn't an article written about the final 8 episodes that I haven't read, furiously searching for any update and any nugget of information with the fiendishness of a meth addict searching for some "blue sky").  But what I will say is that Breaking Bad has solidified certain TV shows as the "new American Classic".

Film by nature of its medium is limited, they can only be at most around 3 hours long (in modern days), and because of that, they have to move at an accelerated pace.  This is one reason for me which I believe Baz Luhrmann's the Great Gatsby didn't quite meet the mark (as I mention in my film blog), it captured the spectacle and the showmanship, but at the end of the day, it didn't capture the essence of Gatsby, leaving many blanks to be filled in by Fitzgerald's prose.  That's not to say films can't have excellent character development, but the scope of their development is limited to a few elements.

What makes Breaking Bad succeed in ways that no other show has is that it completes an arc from start to finish of a man's apocalyptic-like end-life crisis.  It delves into the deep questions of morality, as in what's the point of being good if you have limited time left and feel that you've already wasted your entire life by walking in the lines?  Was Walter White a good person before he started cooking meth or was he always innately evil?  Does this capacity for evil and rationalization exist in all of us?  As the show progressed, people had different views ranging from #TeamWalt to condemning Walt for being so heinously evil.  It served as a Rorschach test to people in more ways than one, even sparking debate on viewers treatment on Skyler White as an indictment on the viewing public's misogyny and the overall misguided view of "American masculinity".

But in addition to all these philosophical undertakings, the show is phenomenally fun.  Everything about the show is the highest quality, from the acting (Bryan Cranston's acting brilliance recently praised by Anthony Hopkins as the greatest acting performance of all time), to the beautiful cinematography of the idyllic "western" landscape of Albuquerque, to the ever quotable dialogue.  The influence of Godfather, Scarface, Sergio Leone, Heat, Tarantino, MacGyver  are all mixed together in a wonderful little chemistry set of Breaking Bad.  The grittiness of criminal violence is joined with a lot of "never seen before" explosiveness to which you can say nothing but "YEAH, SCIENCE!"

Gilligan and his team finally takes full advantage of the medium as a form of writing, employing callbacks to payoff a thread that had been dangling seasons prior and never ever wasting a moment.  The show is a thrill ride from start to finish because it has almost no B-plots (there were some in the early seasons like Marie's kleptomania, but vanished soon after) and every detail is followed through until the end.  As the show progresses, every subsequent season becomes more intense and exciting.  I've only seen one episode where I was somewhat disappointed, but that still makes the batch 99.1% pure.

Nothing will match Breaking Bad in its scope and entirety in at least another decade or so.  It is a masterpiece that has been woven together almost by an accidental perfect storm of events, even the writer's strike in its first season helped in changing the original story from killing off Aaron Paul's character into keeping him to be an effective foil and chemistry (in more ways than one) partner to Cranston's.  It's every artist's dream in the entertainment industry to be able to make work that resembles this show, because it sparks conversation and debate long after the final episode has aired.  It is a true American classic, in the same vein as any work from Steinbeck, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.


Other comments below contain spoilers:


Felina thoughts:

My expectations for the finale were probably infinite.  I had expected the writers now to just simply blow my mind to pieces.  Unfortunately, it seemed that that part had just been reserved for the episodes Tohajilee and Ozymandias, as Granite State and Felina felt more like wrap up episodes.

One of the main problems for this was introducing the gun in the flashforward at the beginning of 5a.  I think the anticipation of the scene with the M60 far surpassed the payoff we finally were delivered.  Also, showing specifically what Walt was building in Felina, a sentry gun, also took away from the effect when he finally did launch the weapon against the Nazis.

The finale also suffered from the fact that a better finale had already aired, season 4's Faceoff.  This finale wrapped up Walt's feud with Gus, a villain that had been developed over several seasons, and thus his ending felt more complete.  The Nazis and Lydia were introduced to us pretty much at the end of season 5a, so there wasn't really that much satisfaction to seeing them offed, other than the fact that they had killed Hank.

My preferred direction would've been to have more of a feud and standoff between Walt and Hank or Walt and Jesse without the ancillary characters, to delve more into a conversation of how far would Walt go to preserve his legacy and what would he sacrifice.  Obviously, this would require that the whole arc of 5b go in a different direction without giving the Nazis a prominent role in the last 8, so I don't know exactly what it would look like, but the finale didn't feel like it gave Walt and Jesse a proper shake for what they both went through.

The fate for Walt also seemed a bit lukewarm, he wasn't quite redeemed nor was he quite condemned...I felt there needed to be more of a feeling one way or the other, like a final judgment to his actions instead of the choice the writers decided to give the audience.

I agree with many, that the finale felt "safe", like a gymnast who's done enough for an Olympic gold so she just finishes the landing with a fairly standard maneuver.  Much of it felt like it wanted to please the fans instead of going on its rip roaring unapologetic pace of the past 7 episodes.  It's still the greatest show of all time, and the finale is still better than 99% of TV finales out there, but it felt to me a bit rushed and uneven.  I suppose it had to do with the fact that they only had really 8 episodes to wrap everything up, the pace of 5b was so blindly fast I barely had time to think about what had just happened and to collect my thoughts every Sunday.

It gives me hope that one day something will surpass Breaking Bad, but until that day comes, I will be saddened that nothing else is as awesome.

But enough text VIDEO TRIBUTES :