Breaking Bad





Remember that show "Malcolm in the Middle," that was funny for about five minutes?  The kids were okay, but what ruined it for me were the parents.  I hated the mom Lois, who seemed like a third-rate Roseanne knockoff, and did nothing but yell and henpeck her husband, Hal. I wasn't so much angry at Hal, as disgusted. All he ever seemed to do was sport a cheesy mustache, cower in fear of Lois, and for some reason he was always in his underwear. 

I first heard about Breaking Bad from promos while watching Mad Men.  All I really knew was that it was about Meth and starred Bryan Cranston, the very same tighty-whitey-wearing Hal who used to make me go, "Dude, not to be a chauvinist dick, but can't you control your woman?" 

Hal and Meth - how fast could I say no?



At the time Mad Men was all anything critics could talk about, and deservedly so. (Here's my glowing review of Season 1, if you're interested.) Since that time AMC has produced Rubicon and The Killing and The Walking Dead, all super-high quality programs. But at the time, AMC was still mostly known for editing the tar out of '80s movies, and many people were thinking Mad Men might be more of a fluke than the beginning of a trend, so Breaking Bad sort of flew under the radar. 

(Also complicating matters: the Writers' Strike happened around then, which burned up a lot of different shows.)





After a while I started hearing that Breaking Bad was actually pretty good, which seemed skeptical (seeing that it didn't have the "buzz" of Mad Men), and then shockingly, Bryan Cranston won the Emmy for Best Actor, and this was in the age of Don Draper, Dexter Morgan and Greg House!

Then Cranston won the Emmy a second time, then three in a row, and you started hearing from critics that Breaking Bad wasn't just good, but really really good, like maybe "best show on television" good. 

I still had my doubts - okay, EXTREME doubts - but it seemed only fair to give the show a shot. I got the Season 1 DVD set for my brother for Christmas, and it finally worked out that we were both in the same place at the same time and had an opportunity to try Breaking Bad. 

That was a few weeks ago. Since then we have moved Heaven and Earth to rip through Seasons One, Two and Three before Season Four started. (The first episode of Season Four was last night.)




Breaking Bad is utterly fantastic.  If you have read my reviews before and you trust my word, make it the very next thing you watch. Go out and rent Season One (it's only seven episodes, because of that stupid Writers' Strike I mentioned); get both discs, because I guarantee you that once you start it you won't be content to stop after the first three episodes. 

You will TEAR through this like a man in the desert would take down a Big Gulp.  

THIS NEXT SECTION GIVES THE SET-UP, AND DOESN'T "SPOIL" ANYTHING YOU WON'T FIND ON THE BACK OF THE DVD BOX, BUT IF YOU'RE ANAL ABOUT THAT SORT OF THING JUST SKIP IT.


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Here's the set-up: Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a genius who somehow wound up a high school chemistry teacher (with a second humiliating job at a car wash), a 15-year old son with Cerebral Palsy and a 7-month pregnant wife who's more than a little controlling. Walt shoulda-coulda-woulda done something great, but here he is, smack-dab in the middle of a life going nowhere. 

Some routine tests reveal a shock: despite a lifetime of clean living Walt has Stage-3 Lung Cancer - which is "get your affairs in order" time. Devastated, Walt is reeling, not sure what to do. The idea of leaving his wife Skyler with a special needs teenager and a new baby sickens him. The next day, while on a ride-along with his much more successful DEA agent brother-in-law Hank, Walter sees Jesse Pinkman, a former student of his. Jesse is the DEA's target that day - a local meth cook, a total screwup - but Jesse gets away with only Walt noticing because he'd been left in the car for safety. 

A crazy plan begins to form in Walt's mind, a way to leave his family some money when he dies, which Walt knows is coming very soon. With seemingly nothing left to lose, the milquetoast Walt, the man least likely to ever step a hair out of line, has decided to "break bad." 

*****************************************************


Even if you read the quick outline, I promise I haven't begun to tell you anything about this series. Everything I wrote is already upside-down before the end of the pilot, and from there it just gets....complicated.  That's just the story, which is awesome - but lots of shows have awesome stories. 

Breaking Bad is also exquisitely written and acted - the two other hallmarks of TV greatness, and the filming techniques are playful and sometimes surprising. The soundtrack at times is laugh-out-loud funny in the irony, and the camera-work is, not always, but every once in awhile, like nothing you've ever seen. 

Breaking Bad is also awash in metaphor - self-consciously so, but they tend to treat the metaphor as some sort of in-joke more than anything so profound that a college freshman could write a term paper. (Although I guarantee that will happen.)  Whether it's a pink teddy bear floating in a pool, "la Tortuga," or the use of Heisenberg (which seems to not only be a joke by the producers, but Walt's own private joke as well), everywhere you look there is symbolism, but it's almost as if the producers are saying, "It's like the Matrix, dude. Don't over-think it. Just enjoy."





But the real reason I'm SO enthusiastic is how the show progresses - the tone, if you will, and thematically; that is to say, how the show deals with morality. What Breaking Bad is and does might make the thoughtful viewer at first think of noir - good man caught up in a bad situation - and the dark humor might even invite comparisons to the Coen Brothers. But neither of those things comes close to an analog. What's going in Breaking Bad isn't a raw look at how Fate sometimes intervenes to set our path, and it isn't an examination of the absurdity of modern Life and the Criminal class who's "just trying to get by" like the rest of us. 

No, what's happening is harder to define. Breaking Bad is a meditation on what it means to choose how you face the things that happen to you. Walter White reminds me a little bit of Lester Burnham in AMERICAN BEAUTY, in the sense of a man learning he can always surprise himself. In a weird way it also reminds me of the Harry Potter series, in that at first it seems simple and almost naive, but gets darker - relentlessly darker - as it goes on, but subtly, in a way that pulls you in further without realizing it. 

Breaking Bad isn't going to be for everybody. While the AMC location means there isn't nearly the level of violence or language of an HBO or Showtime (or heck, even the awesome dramas of FX), there is some violence, a lot of tense situations, and of course the aforementioned meth. Some people probably can't go for that. 

But a few weeks ago I would have thought I was one of them. I really didn't expect to like Breaking Bad. I didn't know what to expect, but all my preconceived notions were wrong. What I found was a character study so complex that it rivals the very best literature. 

And yes, Bryan Cranston still INSISTS on being in his underwear way too often (my brother and I joked it must be in his contract that he gets one scene per episode), but that is easily forgiven. I don't always like Walter White - I don't approve of what he does hardly ever - but I root for him more than almost any character I've seen.  Breaking Bad is the real deal, and don't be surprised if you find yourself semi-obsessed, tweaking for the next episode. 

Just don't start your own meth lab.  Trust me; there's no way that breaks good. 



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Alphas (SyFy)









Alphas
Mondays @10 (SyFy, Space Channel)


Okay, here’s the sitchy:

There are people in this world with naturally developed extraordinary abilities called Alphas. Several of them (an eclectic, multi-racial and beautiful bunch) along with kindly Dr. Rosen work “off grid” for an unnamed super-secret government agency to solve crimes that normal law enforcement would be unable to handle, using their aforementioned abilities, or “powers,” if you will.

I know what you’re thinking: CSI: Mutant.





I suppose that’s sort of the idea, and you’d be right to say this is well-trod ground. However, instead of mythologizing these powers through the lens of “radical evolution” like Heroes or X-Men, Alphas takes a different path. The abilities of the Alphas are grounded in physiological behavior that seems more normal. For example, we have all heard of the mother who lifts a car to rescue a trapped child, or mathematical and music savants.  Alphas takes these ideas and extends them, so while the end result isn’t all that much different from others in this genre, the feel of it is more like Jason Bourne (or the movie WANTED from a couple of years ago) than it is fire-fighting cheerleaders or blue scaled skin.

The other stupendous idea the Alphas creators had was to frame their story not in how great these people are, but how dramatically isolated and alienated from Society they feel. Far from the omniscient tactician of Charles Xavier, Dr. Rosen reminds me more of the Psychiatrist in that ‘80s classic DREAM TEAM, trying to get his group of misfits to see that they can make it in the world if they stick together.

More pointedly - each extraordinary ability comes at great cost to the Alpha. Let’s meet the team and you’ll see what I mean.




Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie)

Alpha Ability - Hyperkinesis: Cameron is capable of perfect coordination between mind and body, which results in super awesome balance, dead-aim and other superior motor skills. Cameron can do things like throw two perfect games in a row or make an impossible ricochet shot from half a mile away.

The Cost: When Cameron’s ability doesn’t work (which is most of the time) it really messes him up. The result is that he often seems strung out, addicted to stimulants and generally unable to function beyond a menial level. Cameron’s travails cost him his wife and kid and top-level military career.

Sidebar Character Note: The show starts with the team already established and Cameron ends up joining them, so in a way he’s the outsider of the group. Also it’s worth noting that he looks uncannily like a lot of different actors. I got everything from Oliver Martinez to a young Tom Cruise to a buff Chris O’Donnell in just one episode.




Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell)

Alpha Ability - Influencing: You know how hot women get men to do what they want, almost by magic? Think of Nina’s ability as an extension of that. She is able to able to focus her charms and actually cause a mini-seizure in the person she’s talking to, resulting in de facto mind control. (I told you this show was more realistic than others. Don’t even pretend you haven’t done something jarringly idiotic because a woman asked you to.)

The Cost: They really didn’t get into this in the Pilot. The website Character-Bio mentions how Nina can never be sure that the affection she receives is genuine or false, but they also hinted that sometimes it spins out of control on the person, perhaps fatally....(dun Dun DUN!)

Sidebar Character Note: Nina is the Veronica Lodge/Karen Walker/Cordelia Chase (circa Buffy, not Angel)/Daffy Duck character. I predict people will split hard on her - love or hate, with no in-between.




Bill Harken (Malik Yoba)

Alpha Ability - Hyperadrenaline: Bill is a former FBI agent with an ability to ramp up his “Fight or Flight” response to Hulk-like levels. The result is a short burst of near super-strength while impervious to harm.

The Cost - You know what happens to you when your body is flooded with adrenaline. Afterwards you feel shaky, sick, exhausted. Now imagine having Bill’s level coursing through your body. Additionally, all those hurts he can ignore during his rampage are felt doubly once it’s over.

Sidebar Character Note: Bill has by far the most crime-fighting experience and professional know-how, but he seems to think he’s in charge of his “unit,” and in a way he’s the most deluded about his new reality (seeing it as a temporary assignment rather than what cost him his job). He reminds me of Christopher Lloyd in THE DREAM TEAM who kept thinking HE was the doctor instead of another mental patient. (By the way, this is the second time I’ve mentioned THE DREAM TEAM. If you have never seen it, put it in your Nexflix queue or just buy it on Amazon. It’s hilarious.)




Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada)

Alpha Ability - Extreme Synesthesia: What Rachel is able to do is to enhance any of her senses exponentially. Thus Rachel can see microscopic details or detect aromas to make a police dog jealous. l

The Cost: Any time Rachel takes one of her senses to an empathic level she loses cognition of the others; sort of the “Tunnel Vision” effect to the extreme. This puts her in constant jeopardy.

Sidebar Character Note: Rachel is of Persian descent, with hints that her Old-World traditional family laments her condition because it makes her damaged goods toward finding a husband. I’m hopeful this dynamic will be explored more.





Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright)

Alpha Ability - Electromagnetic Transduction: Gary may have (at first blush) the most gee-whiz-cool ability - he can read electromagnetic waves in the air (and in some cases control them). This includes television radio and cell phones (except Nokia, Gary felt obliged to tell us). Every crime-fighting group has a nerdy-genius tech guy, but this ups the ante, yet might be the most plausible, because of what else Gary is.

The Cost: Gary is Autistic; he seems a cross of Aspberger’s and Rain Man-esque Savant. Most Autistics are not super-geniuses, but of the ones who are, it’s debatable whether their affliction causes their abilities or is an response to the overwhelming stimulation OF their abilities. In other words, some experts theorize that Autistics have trouble with emotions not because they feel so much less than most people but because they feel so much more. This would fit Gary’s profile: Imagine being able to see and read TV, Radio and Cell phone waves. It sounds useful, but now imagine not being able to turn that off.  You don’t have to be Anna Paquin to know that would suck.

Sidebar Character Note: Autism is the cause célèbre of the next decade: you can bet the baby-shoe money on it. Expect plenty more Autistic characters from Hollywood, and while the necessities of Television’s “short-hand characterization” means a greater likelihood of reinforced stereotypes, in the long run more exposure means more humanization and complex understanding by people, not less. (If you don’t believe me, ask African American actors how they feel about roles available to them in the ‘50s up through even the ‘80s versus now, or on a smaller scale, how far Indian roles have come in just a decade.)





Doctor Lee Rosen (David Strathairn)

Ability: Dr. Rosen is a neurologist and a psychiatrist, and while not an Alpha himself, is fascinated by what makes them special and also the problems that arise from their abilities. Rosen comes across as eccentric, a little Dumbledorish and perhaps a tad paternal, but also deeply caring about his people.

The Cost: For reasons we don’t yet know, Rosen is tied to the shadowy government agency and appears obliged to solve crimes when asked, though he’s fiercely protective of putting his “patients” in harm’s way. Rosen seems to carry a heavy burden of knowing it is his responsibility if any of his vulnerable Alphas were to suffer calamity, and there is nothing he can do about it.

Sidebar Character Note: You probably know David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK or the bad guy in the THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, but he’s been doing outstanding character work for years. He is the emotional center of his team and the cast, and the best chance Alphas has of rising out of “genre” and into simply great television.


Whether Alphas makes that leap is an open question. The budgetary and writing limitations of a network like SyFy are potential roadblocks, but in a way it might be the saving grace as well.  If Alphas continues to focus on the frailties and failings of their characters rather than the super powers or non-stop action they have a chance to carve out a nice corner in what was seemingly an overcrowded niche market. SyFy already proved you don’t need big budgets or names to humanize “misfits” with this year’s excellent Being Human.

The familiar plot set-up doesn’t bother me so much. There is always room on Hyperion’s TV for a story well told.



The 90-minute pilot of Alphas airs six more times before next Monday’s new episode if you want to set your DVR, or it is also available On Demand at at SyFy.com



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Franklin & Bash





I try to avoid commercials, but when I do watch them, my general theory is that if you can’t even create a good ad, it doesn’t bode well for your product. This is especially true for promos and Trailers. Of course, a good commercial is no guarantee the material is any good (GODZILLA, I’m looking in your direction), but at the very least a promo should intrigue the audience, make us wonder what it’s all about.

This brings us to TNT. If you’ve been watching the channel at all the last two months (as I have way more than normal, because of the NBA playoffs), you’ve seen commercials for Franklin & Bash, a new show about a couple of “Regular Guys” lawyers who break all the rules and have fun doing it.  They have to be some of the worst Promos in the history of Television.  Here, take a look at one of the spots:



PROMO #1








If that wasn’t bad enough, the geniuses in TNT’s Marketing Department came up with the idea of having the actors make cheesy lawyer commercials that you see on TV.  The ads are purposely amateurish (at least, I sure as hell hope they are), in an attempt to capture that fey charm we all know and love from our good friends at Montlick and Associates (and their assorted brethren). Here are three of them:



COMMERCIALS















I’m horrified, but I can’t look away.  

It’s not that I necessarily object to the concept of a smarmy frat-house “anything goes” lawyer show, a place where the Denny Crane and Dan Fielding could try to talk Vonda Shepherd into tickling more than the Ivories,1 it’s just that the commercials feel so damn derivative and uninspired that I felt compelled to watch the first episode simply to see if anything could possibly be that bad. Maybe that was their plan!

|  1 That was three jokes for the price of one, you’re welcome very much. I doubt one in one-thousand would get it, but if you’re one of them than F&B is definitely in your wheelhouse.  |









Okay, enough with my clever holier-than-thou “meta” opening: let’s talk about the show itself.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar is Peter Bash, and you don’t know who M-PG is I don’t know what to tell you. He held his own against Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue, he’s done many good guest-spots on various quality Dramas, and thanks to him, every college kid now knows what a suicidal roommate can do for your GPA.2

|  2  The other main character in DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS is Tom Everett Scott, a very likable actor who’s been in a bunch of stuff but just can’t seem to ever find the right role (or show) that would make him the star he deserves to be. And since I feel you need to know these things, here is who else is in DMOC, people you didn’t know then but would now “retro-spot” if you watched the film again: Poppy Montgomery, Alyson Hannigan, and Jason Segel.  (I know, right?)  |

But, c’mon....we ALL know who we think of when we see Mark-Paul Gosselaar - one of the most immortal characters in TV history - Zach Morris.  

For years I’ve had the notion that after a certain number of episodes (and a requisite amount of brilliance), actors should own the rights to the characters that they make memorable, and be allowed to take those characters to another show.  We we could set up some sort of royalties system like with songs for a movie soundtrack, right?3  Why should I be denied the Awesome Evil of Newman the Postman just because Seinfeld is no more? Surely we all could have handled seeing Cliff Claven or Cancer Man or Cousin Oliver a few more times. (Just kidding on Cousin Oliver, but now that I think about it, Alice could have effortlessly blended into most any family in the ‘80s. How great would it have been if she’d worked for the Huxtables!)

|
3  It absolutely sickens me that the gutless spineless cowards at FOX canceled The Good Guys - thus depriving us forevermore of Dan Stark’s ‘Stache - and Human Target. All the characters on that were great, but in particular was Jackie Earle Haley’s Guerrero. Simply mesmerizing. There is no good reason whatsoever why they couldn’t find another show for Haley to continue the part. Come the Revolution, kids - things are changing   |











If anyone deserves to live on, it’s Zach Morris, and Peter Bash is about as close as we’re going to get. He’s smart and cocky about it, doesn’t mind bending the rules and can’t seem to keep his eyes -- or charm -- off the ladies.  If you miss Saved By the Bell at all (and don’t deny that you do), you’re going to have a tug of nostalgia when you see Peter Bash.

The other half, that of Jared Franklin, is brought to us by Breckin Meyer, whom you may remember from all the way back to CLUELESS (he was the one who fell for Brittany Murphy) or as Jon in the GARFIELD movies, or the cuckolded college dude in ROAD TRIP, or as Meg Ryan’s brother in KATE AND LEOPOLD, or any of a number of other things you can look up yourself because I’m done listing them.

Franklin is the Wild Card of the duo; he knows a lot less law and takes more chances, but he has a pure heart.....etc. (And before you accuse me of being glib, you will recall that 1139 words ago I established how pedestrian the character-setups are.









In the initial episode we also meet eccentric billionaire owner Stanton Infeld (Malcom McDowell, in a character so close to his creepy gardener dude on Heroes that I won’t be a bit surprised if it turns out he has powers), who hires the boys to come “shake things up” at his prestigious but (presumably) stodgy Establishment Law firm.  

Let the futha-muckin’4 highjinx ensue, bitch!

Let me ask you something.  How cornball did that last sentence seem?  It was unnecessary, maybe trying too hard, right? I’ve just explained Franklin & Bash to you.  My Metaphor Efficiency Powers are off the futha-muckin’ charts, yo.

|  4  I’ve been saying “Futha-Muckin’” for years, part of my long-held fascination with Spoonerism and its related wordplay.  Just now, not 3 minutes ago, I made a goal to get Futha-Muckin’ trending on Twitter. Yes We Can!  |


The first one two three5 episodes of Franklin and Bash were....not as bad as I feared (or perhaps hoped, since I thoroughly would loved to have written a huge rant).  There’s a couple of side-characters have some potential  including an agoraphobic Indian researcher who lives in Franklin and Bash'’s swinging bachelor pad and never leaves because of the whole agoraphobia thing.6  Another assistant is an ex-con, a detail I know because she’s managed to mention it in each episode so far.

|  5  I initially wrote this review after episode #1, but certain events in my life have conspired to keep me from being as industrious as I would like, namely sadness and crippledom.

 6  Funny Indian-sidekick (the Dairy-Queen kind, not the ones we horribly mistreat and pretend we don’t which is bizarre because so many people “claim” to have American-Indian ancestry that if they were all telling the truth the American Indian population would be 500 million, making them the Woodstock of ethnicities and...where was I going with this?  Oh yeah: sidekicks. Anyway, Indian sidekicks are getting to be a veritable cottage industry in Hollywood. Where Kal Penn is, we salute you, and if Obama ever lets you quit working on your secret career-killing project, please come back!
 |



I’ve taken so many weeks to write this review that I can’t remember what else I was going to say, but I know it was brilliant, so....I don’t really know how to end this sentence.

In conclusion, I learned a few things from Franklin & Bash.  It wasn’t as bad as I thought. I may (shockingly) keep watching it.  Mark-Paul Gosselaar has a great ass.7  

|  7  I KNEW there was something I forgot to mention.  Zach totally gets naked. Worth watching just for that, and I say this as a 96% heterosexual dude.  Well, 86%.  Ah, who’s counting?  |

I should also probably post my reviews in a more timely manner. But I didn’t.  so sue me.  I know where you can get a couple of lawyers.....


Hyperion
June 2-16, 2011




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