Sunday, August 11, 2013

Watching the Pot Boil: Reflections on Breaking Bad and Long-Form Ficton

The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad begin this week, bringing with them the promise of a massive payoff that's been five years in the making.  Series-creator Vince Gilligan has summed up the show as one simple concept, the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface (that is, the transformation of a over-the-hill chemist teacher into a meth-dealing kingpin). While it's true that Gilligan's meth-dealing epic is part of trend of hyper-masculine, antihero character studies that followed in the Sopranos' wake, Breaking Bad's singular focus, cohesion and discipline of storytelling is deserving of special attention.  So much of modern culture seems to play out like a reverse-"Stanford marshmallow experiment", promising maximum for those who refuse to wait.  At the risk of sounding like the kids are on my yard again, I have to give props to TV that fully realizes the potential of the medium -- long-form fiction that breathes, takes its time and pays off only when the time is right.

Of course, quality is quality and any style or genre done right is worth watching.  All that said, when a creative work bucks the trend in all the right ways, it's worth standing up and taking note.  It's a big world and there's room for instant gratification alongside the long, slow payoffs.  But Breaking Bad's narrative successes also say something about the ways so much of modern culture fails to nail the landing.  (Before I say anything more, here's your spoiler warning for Star Wars, the Iron Man movies, Man of SteelLooper, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, True BloodTreme, and - of course - Breaking Bad through the fourth season.)


Wait for it ...

I was recently listening to the surprisingly engaging "Star Wars Minute" podcast, which - true to its name - dissects the Star Wars movies, one minute at a time, with an unheard-of level of detail and reflection.  They recently covered the minute in which Han Solo takes out the bounty hunter Greedo by shooting him point blank under the table.  This iconic moment of badassery was utterly and ludicrously neutered by George Lucas in the Special Edition version of Episode IV because, as the SWM folks recount, Lucas didn't want the first impression of his famous space scoundrel to be a cold-blooded murderer.  Another way to put this is that Lucas didn't want to try the audience's patience with all the hassle of a story arc.  Han Solo has to be Han Solo from the very first scene, and any character development may confuse the audience.

This example is low-hanging fruit. You'll be hard pressed to find non-ironic defenders of the "Greedo Shot First" edit.  But it also reflects an impatience evident throughout so much of our culture.  Our heroes come prepackaged with all their heroic qualities evident from the very first scene.  Character developments are thin and superficial at best.  So Tony Stark starts out in the first Iron Man as a rich, sexy, over-confident and highly capable weapons industralist.  After a series of near-death experiences, Stark ends the movie as a rich, sexy, over-confident and highly capable weapons industrialist with a super suit.  (Oh, and now he's monogamous.)  As I've noted before, the Iron Man movies in particular have a sneaky way of repeating themselves; though, they're hardly unique in this respect.  On the DC-side of the line, Superman barely fared any better in this last go-around.  The Man of Steel begins his arc as a reluctant hero compelled to rescue his fellow Smallville-ians despite the mixed messages of his father figure(s) ... and he ends the film as a reluctant hero compelled to rescue his fellow Americans despite the mixed messages of his father figure(s).  (Oh, and now he has a job and a girlfriend.)

The very first thing you see in the first first scene of Breaking Bad is a confession by Walter White, a sad, broken, hapless high school chemistry teacher, who experimented with meth production in a desperate bid to leave some money behind for his family after getting a cancer diagnosis.  

Flash forward five years and we get the following promo for the final season ... Walter White as Ozymandias, conqueror of worlds:

You don't get from point A to point B in a single scene or even a single season.  This is not a prepackaged, static character with all his badassery in full display from his first appearance.  In fact, odds were that we'd never get to see Mr. Chips become Scarface if the ratings didn't justify renewing the show year after year.  It took the kind of gamble that had once led Lucas to give us a whiny, petulant farm boy who'd only one day (and a full two movies later) show the confidence and competence of a Jedi Master.  It also took the gamble of letting your (anti-)hero spend a little time being less than (anti-)heroic.

Which brings me to my next point.

"Everything Awesome All Of The Time"(tm)

I like Joss Whedon, I really do.  And I say this with love for his work:  When absolutely every line of dialoge is a "zinger", it can get exhausting.  More than that, even, it's just not true to life.  Yes, it's fun when every person on screen is witty, but real life has its dull moments, too.  (I don't have it in me to call out Whedon any more than that, so here's a clip tearing sub-Whedonite Diablo Cody a new one instead.)

Of course, Whedon's skill at integrating large personalities together with sharp, rapid-fire dialogue made him an ideal fit for Avengers, but in a way, that just underscores the problem with storytelling that insists on everything being awesome all of the time. 

There can be no question that this is the greatest time in cinema history to be a geek.  No fanboy on the planet would've dared to hope ten years ago that an Avengers film could get made -- let alone after a successful string of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America films.  But today, all those assumptions have flipped on their heads.  Not only is a trilogy of Avengers films a foregone conclusion, but you can't mention Superman without entering a protracted discussion of when (not if) Warner Bros. will get off their ass and make that Justice League movie.  We're like the kids that just discovered a trunk full of their parents' toys in the attic, running around on a sugar high playing G.I. Joe versus Masters of the Universe versus dinoasurs versus Barbie.  The special effects are there, the audience is there, and sky is no limit at all.  (And by the way, that third G.I. Joe movie is in the works with He-Man's latest debut close on its heels.)  The floodgates have open, and now it seems that every "awesome" idea is just waiting in line for the greenlight.

Superman sequel?  Add a Batman!  Vampire movie?  Add some warewolves!!  Time travel story?  Add telekensis!!!  A good story is a good story, but I've been baffled lately at some of the storytelling choices I've seen lately.  Looper in particular sticks out.  It's a fine enough movie, and I won't go so far as to say it doesn't work.  But was it really necessary in telling a time travel story to add in the third act a dramatic plot twist concerning an entirely different sci-fi concept (i.e. a telekinetic sociopath)?  It just strikes me that the sugar rush of recent years has metastasized into a saturation of corn syrup-latent moviemaking, in which every scene needs an explosion, every line of dialogue needs a zinger, and a single novel concept for a movie just isn't enough.  It all seems part-and-parcel of the instant gratification impulse.  Now that we know we can have desert (for example, a successful Avengers movie after six years of prepwork), we want everything we eat to come with a thick layer of icing on top.

Breaking Bad isn't awesome all the time.  The second season in particular includes a slog of episodes in the first half that are often listless, seemingly aimless, and devoid of any real high mark or action beat.  (That's my recollection at least.)  Walter seemed to be out of the meth business and the dullness threatened to drive away friends of mine who expressed their growing disinsterest despite my growing plea that the third and fourth seasons were not to be missed.  And then, just as you might start to think about dropping the show entirely, this happens ...

I must have spent ten minutes pumping my fist in the air chanting "HEISENBERG!" when this scene finally dropped.  And you know what?  The show completely earned it.  It gave us a plate of spinach to digest and only then hit us with a fudge-drenched sundae with a cherry on top.  Long-form storytelling can pay off in ways that serialized, short-form simply cannot, and in the right hands, those high marks pay off in ways that make every slow moment worth it.

Setting The Stage Right

Besides the emotional release long-form storytelling provides, it also provides a platform to introduce new ideas with all due attention to detail.  I've been focusing so far on movies and TV shows that miss the mark by comparison, but in this case, I want to praise another show that also knows how to take advantage of the medium.  Treme is known to frustrate viewers with its pacing, with story arcs that can feel glacial with little in the way of resolution.  It's a character study of a city, and cities tend not to have pronounced character arcs.  But what it lacks in climaxes it makes up in depth (and then some).  It's the patience and attention to characters like Steve Zahn's David McAlary that make him the perfect vehicle to introduce the audience to New Orleans' musical underbelly.

McAlary is a DJ and uabashed devotee of the Big Easy.  He's the type of fanatic who couldn't tell you when Preservaton Hall opened but knows every working musician in town, and every bar worth stopping at after night falls.  Over the course of three seasons, we see time and again that he's done his homework and he knows New Orleans' music scene backwards and forwads (and he loves every note of it).  It's the time we spend getting to know him, his unabashed love of the city and its music that makes the scene in which he introduces his aunt to Bounce music make perfect sense, without feeling the slightest bit exploitive or cheap:

Readers of this blog will know I had this scene heavy on the mind over the past week after the flat reception Big Freedia (featured in the clip above) received when she opened for Postal Service in Seattle last month.  As a friend pointed out after reading that post, there's a lot to be said about the dynamics that go into introducing new genres and art forms to an audience -- all of that lost on the absurd, hysterical response from some out there at the alleged "racism" of those who didn't instantly fall in love with Big Freedia.  Besides the fact that, on the one hand, Big Freedia's decision to open before a soft, electro-pop band may have accomplished the artist's goal if it managed to "shock" the audience, it's also true that some ideas require the proper context to be accessible to the audience.

It's the same instant gratification impulse that says otherwise, that we should all be expected to embrace every new idea immediately upon viewing (and, if we don't, we must be small-minded or worse).  Long-form storytelling is the antedote to that false assumption.  Walter White's ascension from relucatant meth cook in season one to global drug kingpin in season five could not have happened in the space of a YouTube clip.  It couldn't be conveyed in an episode, not at least with an ounce of the power and satisfaction of a five-season arc that was willing to take its time. 

Again, this shouldn't be mistaken simply with praising the show for the quality of its writing, or its actors, or its editing or music or production values -- all of which are top notch, but that's besides the point.  The point is that our culture, our TV sets and our theaters ought to have room for both sugar-laden instant gratification as well as long-form storytelling that asks us to eat our spinach first.  I cannot wait for these final eight episode, and if you haven't been watching Breaking Bad yet, get ready to do your homework.  Because the payoff (so far at least) has been worth the wait.

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