Author's Note: This was originally just going to be a regular update of recent articles I've written, along with a couple blurb reviews on some shows I've seen recently. It's still that, just longer...and ramblier...and extra digressive. Enjoy?
I am the Harold Camping of being sick. Not a week goes by without me, at some point, warning my friends that the light tickle in my throat, or mild headache I have is undeniable proof of my quickly approaching incapacitation. I don’t consider myself a hypochondriac: I just really hate being sick. Seeing as I only ever do fall ill two or three times a year, my record for actually predicting when I’ll next be laid out is pretty atrocious. The habit serves two purposes, I think. First: I like to think that being constantly paranoid about my immune system failing causes it to always be on full alert, eliminating stray germs on 5 Second Rule-violating food items with extreme prejudice. The other benefit is that, like an animate broken clock lording its correctness over all the other stupid clocks twice a day, whenever I actually do get sick, shouts of “I CALLED IT” in my roommate’s general direction help to clear out the sinuses.
Seeing as I just spent most of the last week wrapped up in blankets with a pair of toilet paper squares shoved up my nostrils (Kleenex is for classy people), I figured I should probably make time to give the ol’ blog an update. As usual, it’s mostly TV stuff I'm talking about today, but maybe the most exciting thing I’ve seen in the last month was a movie, so we’ll start there.
Pacific Rim: This has been a pretty crappy summer for Movies. Not film, and cinema in general, mind you: arthouses and smaller screens are packed to the gills right now with indies and original pictures worth your time and money. Unfortunately, due to rarely having anyone to go to the theater with to see these quieter releases, I’ve seen far too few of them in actual theaters. The real fun comes from getting to discuss the movie with people afterwards, so going through the rigmarole of an actual theatre trip usually depends on if I have people to see the movie with. Ain’t nothing wrong with going a movie theatre alone, but from a financial point of view, it just makes more sense to wait for the home releases if seeing a movie right away also means seeing it alone. Plus, I like to have a posse with me for a show so that we can cluck our tongues at chronic text-ers in unison, and shush in force those helpless innocents talking on their phone during the movie, like the stuffy prigs we are*.
*Sidebar: that a minor Twitter uproar got kicked up last week over proper movie-going etiquette is absurd, but important. There’s an element of dog-piling to how outspoken so many critics have been to Anil Dash’s original call for shushing of the shushers (and he’s been nothing but graceful in handling the criticism), but it speaks to how fed-up people are getting with entitlement culture when common fucking decency is suddenly up for debate. However you watch your movies at home, hey, that’s up to you: be as loud, distracting and generally disgusting as you want within the confines of your own living space. But a theater, like all public spaces, demands a certain degree of respect and consideration for those around you. I can’t believe I’m actually having to write a sentence as unnecessary as that last one in talking about this –I might as well be telling you the proper sequencing of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On the bright side, maybe this most redundant of “debates” can work as a springboard for a broader conversation about social mores. After all, how does one know where to draw the line passed which pursuit of personal pleasure will create a negative sum value for those around you trying to do the same thing? Lucky for you, I’ve developed a simple, one-step guide to navigating the landmine-riddled landscape of public social interaction. Just ask yourself: “Am I being an asshole?” It’s a useful trick in many situations. If, for instance, you’re about to unleash a torrent of righteous hate at a Baskin Robins employee with the audacity to eyeroll your request for a seventh free sample, stop, and reflect on how exploiting a generous, and customer-friendly policy affects the employee’s day, and the day’s of those waiting behind you in line. Do the emotional arithmetic, and figure out how the numbers affect your own personal rating as an asshole.
The same goes for when you’re enjoying the precious seconds of your no doubt very important life that were saved when you decided not to hold the elevator for a helpless person shouting from across the hall, one who was polite enough to request your assistance, despite it seeming ridiculous that one human being would even have to ask another for something so effortless. And just as the few seconds you lose helping another can save them minutes, a quick, piercing “shhh,” will often result in literal hours of collective audience time not being spoiled by one asshole inconsiderate enough to not take their glowing distractions and conversation outside.
Granted, I’m never the one doing the shushing myself; I’m too much of a pacifist (read: coward) to put finger to mouth, and dispense vocal vigilante justice, but lord knows I appreciate the efforts of those who do. /Endrant
As for Movies -with a capital “M”, two gallon soda, and border collie’s weight in popcorn-, things have been pretty dire this summer. Like a lot of people, I’m feeling pretty fatigued by Hollywood lately, which even the industry itself is recognizing about as promptly as when it figures out what new trend or genre needs to be capitalized on next. I used to absolutely devour every new movie trailer I could get my hands on, but now only rarely seek them out. An optimistic spin on that would be to say I’ve come to agree with many others in believing that the less you know about a movie, the better. The cynical, more accurate reason is that even these carefully constructed three-minute sizzle reels -things specifically designed to sell me on a movie- have become overwhelmingly tired and familiar.
The feeling of exhaustion has been confirmed all throughout the summer, with letdown, after underperformer, after train wreck. Waning public faith in the Hollywood magic factory is getting noticeable, even for the biggest properties. How have we gotten to a point where the announcement of three sequels to the highest grossing movie of all time barely elicits a shrug, and that a Batman/Superman crossover is being met with suspicion instead of celebration? I can only blame myself for roaming from disappointing tentpole another, but there’s been a depressing inversion in how I now approach each new blockbuster season. Instead of being on guard for the occasional stinker, I’m now looking desperately for something to cure the near complete apathy I feel looking at the slate of big budget remakes, sequels, and franchise whales that’ll be churned out for at least another decade.
Things have gotten pretty sad when the $190 million dollar homage to an entire genre is being called the most original blockbuster of the summer… and it also turns out to be the best by a country mile. I’m not particularly fanboyish about the works of Guillermo del Toro (his only movie I’ve seen in full is Pan’s Labryinth, which I liked, but not enough to revisit in the five or six years since seeing it), and my soft spot for giant monster movies is mostly based on having watched the ‘98 Godzilla as a kid more times than it rightly deserved. Point being, there was nothing in particular that set me up to go into Pacific Rim with huge expectations.
And that’s probably a big part of why it blew me away so completely. I was literally lightheaded when geeking out about the whole thing with a friend after the first viewing, the physical explanation for which being that the only thing I had eaten in the preceding twelve hours was popcorn and Mr. Pib. But the emotional reason for the response was, “HOLY SHIT, DID YOU SEE THAT ROBOT DO THAT THING WITH THE SWORD AND THE MONSTER AND THE AGHHGHGHGHG OH MY GOD!”
Having had time to calm down (and see it two more times), I can say with confidence that Pacific Rim is my favorite blockbuster movie to come out since The Dark Knight. Not only that, it’s all but restored my faith in big budget movie entertainment, and I’ve really been struggling to figure out why. It is, after all, a 2-hour sensory assault of giant robots and monsters duking it out, which doesn’t make it sound at all different from your average Transformers, or superhero joint. Its story is as cheesy as it is predictable, the dialogue is (enjoyably) silly, and you’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of subtext or meaningful depth.
But struggling to figure out what separates Pacific Rim from the rest of its eye candy-peddling colleagues only further fuelled my mini-obsession with it (enough to break my “The Internet Doesn’t Need Anymore Lists” rule, and shamelessly spitball sequel ideas). The article lays out a number of my reasons for thinking the film is something special, but more than anything, Pacific Rim’s simplicity, and surprisingly modest ambitions make it stand out from the crowd. The thing is, hidden behind the movie’s top-notch production values, and B-movie charm, Pacific Rim is ultimately about people. Its conflict boils down to the same world-ending stakes that every other blockbuster needs in order to appeal to a global market, but as is becoming rarer and rarer, solving that conflict depends on teamwork, instead of exceptionalism. The day is saved not by a chosen one or a superhero, but a wide array of people from across the world united in common cause. That lack of emphasis on the individual makes for simplistic characters, but a really memorable message about people being able to work together towards a goal that’s for the good of all mankind. I know, it sounds dopey as hell, but it makes a real breath a fresh air, given how much stock most blockbusters put into the importance of the person, rather than people as a whole.
Pacific Rim still has its fair share of flaws, mind you. While it’s great that the female lead (Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori; the dialogue might be hokey, but the character names are just incredible) has a lot more to do in the movie than just stand around and look pretty, she’s the only female character in the entire movie with more than 5 lines of dialogue. Similarly, the global spirit of the film gets undermined when the characters from Russia and China barely register as anything other than vaguely stereotypical archetypes. On those grounds, I can’t help but dock it a few points, meaning Pacific Rim is a four stars out of five type movie…but it’s the most enthusiastic four out of five I’ve given out in years. See it on the biggest screen you can find, and watch it with friends. If it has to exist, than Pacific Rim is the epitome of what summer blockbuster filmmaking should be: fun, inventive, and uplifting. Yes, the message is overly simplistic, but escapist entertainment isn’t about imagining yourself in a world where giant robots fight huge monsters –it’s about imagining yourself in a world where giant robots fighting huge monsters is the only thing threatening humanity's continued existence.
Broadchurch and The Fall: I caught a couple of much-talked about short-run series recently that I’d like to pair up in discussion, not just because they’re both imports from the BBC, but because if you described either of them to someone, they might assume that the show had already came out earlier in the year. Describing them sounds like the wind up to a bad punchline: have you heard the one about the sleepy coastal town that has its dark underbelly exposed after an unthinkable murder draws the attention of a transplanted cop with something to prove? Anyone listening to your synopsis might then predict that the show will probably involve the brilliant, but socially inept new detective fighting a life-threatening condition, and dealing with distrusting locals, and a muckraking press in their pursuit of the truth (and they’d be totally right).
No, it’s not Top of the Lake, or The Bridge, or The Killing, one of which is a among the best shows of the year, one of which is a promising newbie, and the other of which that same status into the ground so fast* as to make “Fuck you, The Killing” a minor internet meme. The show I’m referring to is Broadchurch, an eight-chapter look at how tragedy rocks a small town populated with suspicious and prickly characters to spare. Geographically-specific whodunits are the modern day mansion murder mystery, and the best invite the audience to participate in the narrative’s parlor game of suspect elimination, un-elimination, and skeletons jumping out of closets until, I don’t know, maybe the dog did it? But it is a game played off the dead body of an 11 year-old boy, with dead bodies of all shapes and sizes having formed the creative launchpad for many of the season’s new and quality dramas.
* The Killing was put out of its misery with a cancellation order from AMC after the second season, but in a twist of fate, a third was commissioned at the 11th hour. Some would argue there has been a phoenix-life rebirth of the show since, leaving its bad reputation now in question
The Fall, similarly, would seem not unlike NBC’s frightfully enjoyable Hannibal, or Fox’s dreadful (in the bad way) The Following, given its similar interest in the dichotomy between cops and killers. All three shows are defined by more modern sensibilities, the most prominent being how they present an investigation into the dark recesses of an obsessive sociopath’s mind as being more disturbing than any dank attic or foggy graveyard. Part in parcel with those new sensibilities is the belief that evil can no longer just be faceless - it has to be TV pretty too. In casting the dapper Mads Mikkelson in the part, Hannibal’s reinvention of Dr. Lecter as a refined creature of taste lead to a man-meat cottage industry online, with GIFs of homicidal hunks to be cooed over filling Tumblrs, and probably plenty of Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter slash fiction finding an audience in the internet’s more lewd corners.
An obsession with sex is the psychological corner stone for a great deal of violence fiction lately, and The Fall follows suit, exploring both how it flavors and inspires crimes, and the ways sexuality influences the lives of those that get drawn into a killer’s orbit. The framework is your average two-hander of cop chasing after criminal across parallel narratives. In one corner is a dangerously unbalanced man wearing the skin of your average schmuck, and in the other is a brilliant, but socially inept detective (déjà vu?) brought in from out of town to halt a spat of seemingly unrelated murders. Set in Belfast, the kind of city where some of Broadchurch’s tourist would spend the rest of their year, The Fall’s familiarity is somewhat masked by the flavoring of its setting, and approach to going through the usual manhunt motions. Modern technology and social mores get bandied around to keep the police grunt work both in the office, and at a crime scene interesting, but it’s all just buildup to the killer’s next deadly setpiece.
In comparing both series, each of which has garnered strong reviews and a sizeable viewership, there’s a noticeable difference between how each show’s first season functions as a discrete piece of storytelling. Upon finishing both, your reaction to finding out that they’ve been renewed for a second series would be starkly different. Where The Fall leaves off, a continuation is just assumed. At only five hours in length, it barely makes for a novella, and demands a second series to wrap up all the loose threads of the first. Meanwhile, a closing title card reading “Broadchurch will return,” which appeared for that show’s first series finale, reads almost like a threat, a snipping of the perfectly fine bow Broadchurch ties everything up in by the end of its gamely and lean eight hours.
If I’m sounding more dismissive of one, it’s because The Fall doesn’t make the same case for itself as Required Viewing the way Broadchurch does. Pulpy to a fault, The Fall does do a couple of things exceptionally well. For one, casting Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, who’s tasked with bringing in the killer played by Jamie Dornan, opens up the opportunity for not just a strong performance, but an interesting look at sexual politics in law enforcement. There’s a terrific gender distribution amongst the cast, one that feels organic, and not forced. A scene set at a morgue late in the series features three professional women battling over whether to interview a near-comatose survivor of the killer’s latest attack. It does this all without commenting on what a strange, and foreign image this is for TV, where a scene of pure plot driving comes down to three characters all trying to assert their authority in a life-and-death situation, and all three happen to be female. Think about the last time you saw something like that on a show, or in a movie, and tell me that’s not a fucking rarity.
Similarly, the show doesn’t take for granted that Gibson’s career success comes at the expense of a social life, and whenever the latter does become of interest, it’s usually because it’s causing problems for the former. Almost as soon as she touches down in Belfast, she picks up a thick cut of local beefcake to blow off some steam. The sex scene is all framed around Gibson’s control, and Gibson’s enjoyment (again, another rarity), but her impulsive decision bites her in the ass in the long run, the way such flings come to haunt many gumshoes that can’t keep their pants on. On other occasions though, The Fall doesn’t underline and bold its more subversive elements, so much as announce their presence with spotlights and prison alarms. A scene of Gibson using grammar to verbally eviscerate a sexist colleague is played to the hilt by Anderson, but by drawing attention to itself, isn’t as subtly effective at showing a progressive narrative the way other scenes are. When Gibson reacts to her assistant coming out as though she were stating what she had ordered for dinner last night, it makes for a much quieter, more normalizing way of saying “you have genitals, I have genitals, and we all like to share our genitals with others; can we get on with finding the serial killer now?”
Where The Fall really stumbles, though, is with the other half of its dual narrative, as the phantom Gibson is chasing isn’t all that special. Dornan gives a chilly performance, one that allows for some interesting beats as his character’s increasingly uncontrollable impulses arc and ricochet off his day job as the head of a family of four. It’s a more conflicted psycho to play, lacking in the cold-blooded self-awareness and narcissism that made Dexter and Patrick Bateman popular, but the motives and mechanics of his attacks lack originality. The police investigation of the wreckage left in the killer’s wake is intimately detailed and choreographed (there’s a great little scene that presents a body being discovered from the perspective of a 9-1-1 phone operator), but watching the acts themselves pushes the boundaries of needless exploitation, as the show has nothing new to add to the trope of unstable men targeting women. Near the end of the last hour, a tête-à-tête between the two leads crams more clichés about the symmetrical nature of cops and killers into one scene than a bad Se7en knockoff, and like those two characters, The Fall is a darkly alluring, but disappointingly hollow beast.
Perhaps the more staid nature of Broadchurch is what helped it find a much larger audience, and even higher critical praise from critics, despite a similar grimness of subject matter. Like The Fall, Broadchurch charts some very deep waters of the human soul, but goes all the way with it, exploring how the real damage caused by violence doesn’t stop with a heartbeat. Glorifying the many creative ways people can kill one another is a popular form of this kind of drama, a fact that network juggernaut CBS can attest to. With rare exception (Hannibal comes to mind) does a show that uses corpses as a plot starting point each week have much to bring to the discussion of why that corpse wound up on a mortuary slab in the first place. Creatively mutilated bodies are the delicious sausage fuelling huge ratings across entire franchises of CSI and NCSI, as unlike real sausage, audiences love to see how a dead body gets made. It’s an incredibly lazy, somewhat depressing narrative conceit: put a person through the meatgrinder of human moral failing, and no matter their personality, age, race, whatever, they’ll become instantly more interesting on account of their deadness.
What’s you see less often is a show attempt to present how that meatgrinder comes to exist, or really acknowledge that the potential to do unspeakable things to other people isn’t reserved for the whack jobs and social malcontents. Broadchurch, with its lived-in setting, and well-rounded cast, stands out for being not nearly so flippant as its colleagues about murder, and the mayhem it causes. It explores the diverse ways bad blood can infect a tightly knit group of people, and expose their darker multitudes. The knotty histories and secret connections of the town of Broadchurch are drawn into a rapidly tightening net soon after the body of young Danny Latimer in discovered on a local beach, a crime as unexpected as it is unexplainable. Former Doctor Who David Tennant gives another sturdy, range-expanding performance as DI Alec Hardy, a disgraced detective desperately in need of the peace and quiet assignment to the country promises (he’d have to battle Hannibal’s Will Graham for title of “Least Sheveled TV Sleuth”), but still looking over his shoulder at the bungled case that got him exiled to Broadchurch.
Making the authorities in charge of cracking the case seem potentially as shady as their suspects is another of many well-worn genre trope the show employs, like the eventual tug of war that breakouts between police and the media over the victim’s family. If they weren’t played with such a straight face, the abundance of cop and mystery clichés would be all you need to make the show a work of parody, or tribute. The first episode featured two scenes that made me strongly recall the filmmaking of Edgar Wright, the ultimate coverband filmmaker whose Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz doubled as cheeky genre recreations, and inventive love letters. In the first episode, a tricky long take follows Andrew Buchan as Latimar patriarch Mark, introducing us to much of the principal cast through a trip down Broadchurch’s main street. It’s not unlike a more intentionally showy shot Wright used to present suburban boredom in Shaun of the Dead, only to revisit the shot later with added zombies. Similarly, a later scene featuring Olivia Colman isn’t just connected to Hot Fuzz by Colman herself. Her character, DS Ellie Miller, is introduced finding an assumed promotion within the local police department not going quite as planned, much like how Nicholas Angel is screwed over by police bureaucracy when we first meet him in Hot Fuzz.
I bring it up because both Miller and Colman add a sensibility to Broadchurch’s moody alchemy that’s inconsistent with the rest of the mixture, but is precisely what helps separate it from all the other Dark And Serious Murder Dramas out there. Treating the death of a child with the solemnity it ought to entail requires a firm hand on tone, meaning a bitter chuckle at gallows humor is the closest reprieve the audience is like to find (Hannibal’s use of peppy wordplay during lighter scenes would often feel like it belonged in another universe entirely). But courting such a tone over even eight hours runs the risk of clouding the intrigue and suspense of the mystery with overwhelming bleakness, a risk averted by Colman’s sometimes charming, sometimes gut-wrenching, yet always humane performance. She effortlessly adapts Miller to whatever’s required of the scene, whether ineffectively, hilariously trying to build a rapport with Hardy, or reeling from the emotional toll taken when seeing the true faces of people she’s known her whole life. It’s arguably a more exceptional, and more important performance than Tennant’s, as without it, Broadchurch would be almost unbearably grim.
Miller forms the show’s ossifying heart, and Hardy its cynical head, but like any good mystery, Broadchurch avoids making its frequent fake outs about who did what, with whom feel like pure red herrings. There are strongly developed backstories for most of the characters, ones often as fleshed out, as they are messy. Hardy’s investigation exposes grime long simmering beneath the town’s quaint idyll, letting it all bleach under an unrelenting seaside sun. In doing so, Broadchurch, particularly in its final hours, comes away as being a show with something to actually say about its premise, where programs like The Fall only come up with a handful of sand. In filling its world with so much anger, and tragedy, most of which is only tangentially related to the actual case that anchors it all, Broadchurch appears just as misanthropic about people as any serial killer tale, but in presenting morality across a spectrum, its humanist undercurrent pulls through. Positioning ultimate evil (killer) and ultimate good (cop) opposite one another, as so many manhunt dramas do, makes for a facile deconstruction of the human spirit. And really, wondering if an emotionless killing machine is stalking your neighborhood isn’t half so terrifying as the exhaustion any person can face when trying to live ethically, only partly aware of the damage that can occur, should they slip up even once.
Because message is increasingly what separates the many similar offerings of the television medium, I can go this long into talking about Broadchurch without saying much about how the show actually plays. What’s to say? The performers are all excellent, and the story wraps itself up beautifully (though how they’ll do a second series might be the biggest mystery of all). Any complaints will likely come down to matters of taste, so I’d best voice mine then, I suppose. The writing has gotten a great deal of credit for presenting grief as an evolving process, not just relying on images of weeping mothers and heaven-cursing fathers that form the only emotional gear on other shows (a dead kid is a sad thing, ergo the characters must be sad always). A scene in episode two, where Mark identifies his son at the morgue, is so slowplayed by Buchan, I honestly couldn’t tell if A) the character was processing the death of his son B) we were supposed to be suspicious of him, or C) Buchan’s range was just really limited. Option C was quickly eliminated, and it’s by acknowledging the many ways one deals with tragedy that Broadchurch manages to keep the viewer second-guessing their reading of characters and their actions.
That being said, the histrionics are still present, they’re just saved for the editing and directing. If finding my booze-bloated corpse next to a Broadchurch DVD ever presents a mystery, just know the cause of death was me playing the drinking game where you take a shot every time a scene takes place in a sun-facing room, ends with a slow-motion shot of people looking apprehensive at middle-distance, or features characters aimlessly walking their emotions off to maudlin piano and strings. You wouldn’t last more than an episode playing by those rules, and while not all will even be conscious of the house style, with fewer still actually being bothered by it, it proved an unfortunate distraction during my initial viewing. But at the risk of this whole thing becoming less of a review, and more of a thesis analysis, I figured I ought to include some cons to go with the pros. Actually, we left Review Town 1000 words ago, so let me just reiterate: The Fall = reserved recommendation, Broadchurch = emphatic thumbs up. The latter alone is worth watching just to hear Tennant's Scottish brogue used to voice complaints about social media.
Orange is the New Black and Breaking Bad: In what’s becoming the running theme of a blog post that’s running far too long, I’d rather talk around OITNB than dissect it, though not necessarily by choice this time. Based on the book of the same title, and adapted for television by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, Orange is the New Black has been a cumbersome title on many tongues lately, providing 2013 its biggest sleeper hit. For all the chatter Netflix generated by stepping into the original content business with a prestige drama in one hand (House of Cards), and a loveable charity case in the other (Arrested Development), seemingly little attention was paid to OITNB in the runup to its release. Some, including myself, only first heard about the show when Netflix announced a second season* had been commissioned only weeks before the entirety of the first came tumbling out all at once.
*The point of such a public show of confidence before a single minute of the show has seen the light of day is just that. The hope is to have people assume that if the show is good enough for the suits, it’s good enough for me. While the tactic may have helped OITNB’s ratings, it wouldn’t be the first show to get the lone, premature renewal notice.
To get this out of the way, let me just add my voice to others joined in the hosanna signing, and say Orange is the New Black is unquestionably one of the best new shows in a year that’s delivered about as many great freshman programs, as returning favorites. The more I look at the nominees for my Top 20 list of the year, the more happy I am to see an increasing percentage of which include “Ladies Getting Shit Done” as a core element of the storytelling. Orange probably features the most Ladies getting the most Shit Done, without necessarily being all that plot-driven. There’s no real A-plot beyond the basic premise of a quietly obnoxious yuppie New Yorker finding herself incarcerated, having been convicted at the 11th hour of the statute of limitations on her party girl/drug mule phase of youth. Relative newbie Taylor Schilling stars as Piper Chapman (a loose version of the book’s ex-con author, Piper Kerman), but the show quickly, and wisely moves away from its fixation on her as a Netflix-using audience surrogate, and shifts focus to many of the other inhabitants of Litchfield Prison.
Piper’s job is to introduce the viewer to the inner workings and population of an environment most won’t be familiar with, and then let those new characters and dynamics tell the real stories. Nearly all of them turn out to be richly compelling and empathetic. It’s tempting to simply throw praise at the show’s feet for having a gender, racial, and sexual balance of characters that’s refreshingly skewed compared to the mean and mode of the television medium. But that diversity would be meaningless if OITNB didn’t go about integrating the unique perspectives that diversity enables into its greater narrative, which it does. And even more so than Broadchurch, by moving the viewer out of a singular headspace, and conflict, Orange is the New Black develops a resonant harmony out of its varied characters, their relationships, and individual histories. The show never loses touch with the basic humanity of its players, who self-identify, and are subsequently identified by others, across wide-ranging, sometimes conflicting conceptions of strength, weakness, limits, and worth.
All of which is a loosey-goosey, emotionally based way of giving my recommendation for the show, something I prefer not to lean on, in favor of direct examples. And sure, select stories and beats stuck with me in particular*, but the more I think about Orange is the New Black, the more the generalities stick out, rather than the specifics. The feel of the show is still etched into my head, but trying to break the broadstrokes memories down into their component parts has proven an unexpected challenge. I mean, I watched the whole thing only a month ago; how can something you’ve enjoyed so much, and so recently, be so damned hard to remember not long after? I feel like a freshman describing his first epic college party weeks after the fact, with hazy memories drifting away due to the passage of time –and because the only thing he can be certain of is that the good time began with copious binge drinking.
*The fifth episode centers around Piper chasing a 10-pound, clucking and flapping metaphor for adjustment to prison life. It speaks to the show’s charms that it can make such an obvious device unexpectedly endearing.
If one word wormed its way into the popular TV lexicon this year, it was definitely that, “binge,” an encapsulation of new viewing methods that’s been so overused of late, exposure to it makes you feel a bit like horking. Yet, the word’s usual partner, purge, isn’t found in the conversation nearly as often, despite it crudely describing the aftereffects I felt after blowing through both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black in a weekend each. Looking beyond Netflix, the ease of access to quality television has never been so trifling, just as the volume of great television has never been so overwhelming. Streaming, DVDs, and pirating now leave no excuse for you not to watch the next episode of a show, wanting to do so immediately quickly becoming the telltale sign of a worthwhile program. Watching a show is coming more to resemble the pace of competitive eating, as we desperately try to shovel down as much content as we can, as quickly as we can, all while ignoring how our haste doesn’t allow for proper digestion.
Confession time: I suck at reading books. Not in terms of literacy, understanding, or speed (although all three could be far better), but more so in terms of coming away from a book with a well-founded opinion on its artistic quality, the way I do for a movie, or an episode of television. The reason for this is two-fold, I think, one being related to how the medium functions. Unlike the audio-visual immersion offered by TV and film, a book puts more onus on the audience to construct the narrative for themselves. The fact that I work in the evaluation, and not creation side of pop culture, should be a hint as to how well wired my brain is to filling in the author’s blanks. The other reason relates to how I actually read, which is based on finishing a novel in as few sessions as possible. This has the effect of broadening the amount of material to be analyzed between reading breaks, which may in fact be how some authors prefer their works be enjoyed, but leaves me often missing the artistic trees of the prose for the mechanical forest of plot.
I’ve made my peace with being out of my depth when approaching the literary world with critical intentions, but find that feeling of haziness that comes with finishing a novel as more and more analogous to how I feel after wrapping up an entire 13-episode TV season over a short time frame. It’s a feeling that’s becoming more common, and problematic as the best television out there moves further away from the importance of the individual episode, and focuses more on the whole of the season. This is exactly what guys like David Simon and Matthew Weiner want. As prestige dramas push passed simply being serialized, and start adopting the storytelling structure and mechanics of novels, any given plot thread on Treme, character in Mad Men, or entire episode of either show can end up seeming like a disparate element at first glance. Once you’ve finished the season though, and see the greater whole all those plots, characters and episodes are meant to contribute to, it can be a revelation; indeed, my favorite TV drama ever built a motto out of reassuring its audience that, yes, all the pieces matter.
And like a novel, the first few entries in most series can sometimes feel like a chore, so Netflix’s distribution model is immensely helpful for giving viewers the ability to power through the table setting leading up to the main course. But for the vast majority of series, including the novelistic ones, giving the viewer absolute control over when, and how quickly they watch a show has crippled the social elements that have helped define television’s existence up until now. By eliminating the need to watch TV on a set schedule, conversation about the show gets cutoff at the knees. Maybe it’s because it seems like we’re becoming more indulgent as a culture (the theatre debate can attest to that), but it’s getting harder to tell the difference between Hollywood, and the junk food industry, tweaking and perfecting its formula for finding the individual consumer’s bliss point.
Where Netflix exploits gluttony, cinema is becoming more and more a dessert factory, shoving one nutritionless confectioner after another right in front of you. To take this all back a few thousand words, the answer to why there’s no enthusiasm for properties like Batman Vs Superman, and Avatars two through four, is that their abundance is proof of their disposability. The development speed and marketability required to keep the factory running at peak capacity doesn’t leave room for texturing a product into something thought provoking. Memorable characters and unique narrative are never as important as the general feeling of satisfaction the product is meant to induce.
A film like Elysium, which tries to cram a brain into its futuristic sci-fi robot exoskeleton, causes most of the debate to focus on how trying to say something makes the film better or worse, rather than the things the film wants to say about the wealth gap and health care. That’s because the message itself is as one note and monotonous as the mindless spectacle surrounding it; it’s an episode of G.I. Joe, heavyhanded moralizing and all, instead of a readable text made up of individual scenes, directorial choices, and editing choices that can be parsed and interpreted. With no trees to focus on, the forest is all that matters, which leads to passionate discourse about the aesthetic and artistic merits of a film devolving into fanboy rants and complaints about plot holes. In critiquing a recent list from Total Film that wanted to perform liposuction on 50 films too long for their attention span, Matt Singer pointed out a belief that enjoyment of a film isn’t total unless it has the chance to be discussed, something I believe applies equally to television, but is also disappearing.
To wrap things up, I want to talk about Breaking Bad, which might turn out to be the biggest show of the year in terms of volume of discussion and cultural impact. Its sixth* season premiere drew 6 million viewers last Sunday. Even repeats on a Friday night can do better than that on a broadcast network, but for a cable network like AMC, 6 million sets of eyeballs makes for a hit. Not a Walking Dead-sized hit, mind you, which is AMC’s champion horse that does ratings even the networks would envy, but compared to how it first started, the numbers Breaking Bad is pulling in now better fit its place in the current cultural zeitgeist. It represents the death rattle of the current television Golden era of the White Male Anti-Hero, fittingly being the most popular of such programs since the granddaddy of the whole genre, The Sopranos.
*Technically, it’s the beginning of the second half of Season 5, but the more than year’s wait since the final “oh shit” moment of 2012 has made the transition feel less like an unpausing and more like the beginning of the final arc.
Breaking Bad will be the heart-stopping climax of the third television golden age, but Mad Men will be its more sanctified denouement, even though it will likely end its run next year with less than half of the ratings Breaking Bad will pull in. But what Mad Men does share with Breaking Bad, besides a common interest in Star Trek fan fiction, is that both have seen their ratings grow remarkably since premiering in 2007, and 2008, respectively. As noted by Vulture contributor Josef Adalian, the “slow-mo explosion” of ratings both shows have experienced over their runs has been a result of AMC allowing each to cultivate and maintain the specific brand of quality programming that made their channel matter in the first place. While The Walking Dead proved to be an out-of-the-box hit, with ratings that climbed in inverse proportion to how good the show actually was, Breaking Bad, and to a lesser extent Mad Men, have proven that if the show really is good enough, it will attract a wider audience over its life span.
It’s impossible not to attribute at least some of those insane jumps in ratings between seasons to Netflix-like services, as getting new viewers caught up has always been a barrier keeping serialized programming from growing. And while many of those new fans will complain about the unbearable wait between episodes, they may not realize that the waiting can make for the most fun. Even if you end up watching the show alone, or have no one to chat with about it at the water cooler, the internet has made it easier than ever to share your thoughts, and see others. While the art of “recapping” seems to be going the way of the dodo, some of the best writing about television out there comes from passionate viewers and critics expressing how each week’s installment played for them.
One such critic, Myles McNutt, has been waging a one-man war against the image of recapping as just an outlet for fanboys to write episode summaries padded out with the snark they couldn’t share with anyone in real life (on a completely unrelated note, here are reviews for the last few episodes of Under the Dome). It’s one I whole-heartedly agree with, not just because of how good the write-ups from the likes of McNutt, Maureen Ryan, and Alan Sepinwall* usually are, but because of how they offer an outlet for viewers to share their own opinions, and have the opinions of others expand their own. I’d wager a big part of Breaking Bad’s continuing success has been the result of its willingness to still make each individual hour a discrete work of its own, but one that still fits as a piece of the show’s greater puzzle. Encouraging discussion and analysis on both a micro and macro level is what makes for great art, and that’s exactly why Breaking Bad will be going out as one of the all-time great TV dramas, no which way it rides off into the sunset.
*That’s naming just a paltry few writers doing exceptional work analyzing art mere hours after viewing it, including Linda Holmes, Matt Zoller Seitz, Donna Bowman, and Todd VavDerWerff. If anything, the problem is that there are too many such pieces being released after every episode of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and the like, making for a hell of a reading list come Monday morning.
So how was the premiere anyway? Well, it was Breaking Bad, which is to say it was never anything less than completely captivating and excellent. And at the same time, you can tell it’s time to close the book on this story, and kind of storytelling general. In the last thought piece I wrote that ran wildly beyond the proposed wordcount, which was about the video game The Last of Us, critic Leigh Alexander succinctly summed up the same experience much more gracefully, and in far fewer words, as “the last story of the strong man at the end of the world that I need to play.” I can’t help but feel the same about the position Breaking Bad holds in the current television landscape. Hidden behind the colloquialism, the show’s title is deceptively blunt; this is the story of what happens when someone embraces illegality, immorality, and even pure evil. It is the purest dramatic distillation of the 21st century crisis of masculinity, and economy, one that no one should attempt to try again. We already have Breaking Bad, and now it’s time for something new.