Friday, August 16, 2013

Bad Breaks

With Breaking Bad coming to a close, TV pundits are figuring where to place it in the pantheon.  Almost everyone puts it near the top, along with such titles as The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men.

It's my favorite show on the air these days, but is it overrated?  My answer is no, for the most part.  It's well-acted, well-written and has more thrills than anything else out there.  But I can still see flaws, even serious ones.

Unlike the three shows listed above, Breaking Bad is a small show.  It's really about one man, Walter White, and almost everyone else, for the most part, exists in how they relate to him.  Compare this to Tony Soprano or Don Draper--they're central characters, but there's a whole world they live in that goes on when they're not around.  This isn't necessarily a flaw, but when you look at something like The Wire, you realize how much Breaking Bad concentrates on something fairly small and specific.

Also, with this concentration on Walt, any plot not directly about him sometimes goes astray.   Early on when they were creating these characters the show gave them sideplots to fill them out, but most of these turned out to be dead ends.  Most obviously, I guess, would be Marie and her crime spree.  Or there's Skyler's affair with Ted.  It has its moments, and leads to other things, but a lot of the time spent at Beneke's is downtime. Then there Jesse's problems with his parents. I don't deny it helps explain his character, but it doesn't add that much to the arc of the show.  And there's Hank's adventures in El Paso, which certainly had memorable moments, but didn't help much in the overall effect of the series.

Another problem is one that happens to any series that lasts long enough.  These sorts of serial dramas are fresh in their first 13-episode season, and often in their second, but sooner or later start repeating themselves.  Look at Hank.  His main drive is to catch Heisenberg, but he can't always be frothing at the mouth, so at least three times they've had him doubt his commitment, only to be drawn back in.  Worse is Jesse, who may now be the moral center of the show, but has spent an awful lot of time moping around.  It's okay for a character to become a little troubled every now and then, but Jesse's been on this kick so many times there doesn't seem that much more the show can do with it.  For that matter, there's the marriage of Walt and Skyler.  A broken marriage is a good for drama, but it's gone up and down so many times you just want them to make up their minds.

Then there's how Walt climbs the ladder. In the earliest days when he was smalltime and had lots of trouble, it was more believable.  As we've gotten bigger, the show is sometime too grand, and less believable that anyone could operate at this level.  The show has also gotten more grandiose in its looks.  They use the New Mexico scenery, and that's fine, but too often the cinematographer seems to be showing off.  In the first season, when Walt holds a meeting at a garbage dump outside town because he thinks that's how gangsters roll, Jesse says it makes more sense to do it at a mall.  In later seasons, however, we get lots of meeting in grand vistas where's there's no one around for miles. Looks beautiful, but is that really how they play it?

Since shows like Breaking Bad are generally made up as they go along, there'll always be flaws.  When Dickens serialized his novels, before he gathered all the chapters together to be sold in one volume, he'd rewrite it to make the story work better.  Sometimes I wish these shows had the time and money to go back and fix the parts that didn't work as well as they might have.  Until then, though, I'll keep watching.

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