Stay On Air Forever, Breaking Bad

I came to Breaking Bad after getting bored with Mad Men - I found Don Draper’s journey to be frustratingly static, every week a movement from A to A, where something was on the verge of happening but not quite (About Season 2 or 3). Breaking Bad, comparatively, was all about the joys of plot: every week, something happened of consequence, and the line that the show was built on, a “good” man going evil, expanded and twisted in ways that were deep and fascinating.

Nowadays, I’m back in Mad Men’s pocket. (I loved the last season.) But I still love Breaking Bad the most, and find it kind of irresistible to call it “better than Mad Men.” It’s funny because really, the two shouldn’t be compared. They’re on the same station, they’re doing the same good work. Retroactively, in five years’ time, it’s not going to matter one iota - mostly it’ll just be a record of two very good TV shows on the air at the same time, one winning the Best Drama Emmy because of the nuance and class, the other winning the Best Actor Emmy. I don’t see Jon Hamm - who, admit it, is desperate like a WB starlet in an iconic role to prove that he can be comic and not Don Draper and it’s funny because it’s awkward - ever winning an Emmy when Bryan Cranston has to go from A to K to R to F to Z to B, all in the course of one episode. (This is a bastardization of Dorothy Parker’s famous Katharine Hepburn diss, “She ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.”) The point of Mad Men is that Don Draper is superficially going from A to B, with tiny little cracks in the fissure.

They’re two consistently fascinating shows, since they’re asking what makes a (modern) man? and the answer is something like to survive and succeed, you have to be a sociopathic nihilist. Those shows, Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos, seem to be the main arguments for why TV is the driving force of creative freedom in the culture these days, although I’m fairly sure you could combine the audiences for those shows and get half of the amount of people who’ve seen something on CBS, and this argument about “the golden age of TV” sure does discount any sort of female perspective on the shows or as a showrunner.

What I love about Vince Gilligan is that he never, ever assumes that the audience is dumb. (Unlike a Showtime series, which is all about setting up a wacky, skewed view of the world, having some fancy guest star come in and shake it up, and then having that person die and then the game is back at zero. I am talking about Dexter here.) Gilligan lets the audience figure out the games that the characters are playing, how their motivations are roiling underneath their placid faces. It’s hard not to totally love him for that fact. He has a tendency to quote a Billy Wilder adage about “letting the audience add up two and two to four and they’ll love you forever,” which is true.

I’m constantly surprised by Breaking Bad and I’m a little heartbroken that the “last” season is starting next week, which means there are only sixteen hours left of Walter White’s story. I have no idea where it will go, I assume it will be with his death - but maybe not - and whether it’s something epic and Greek or pathetic and driven by the return of his cancer, I don’t know. It’s not enough time for the world to quite catch up with Gilligan’s genius, for people to write about Breaking Bad in some of the ways that people write about Mad Men (which is an easier show to write about in a lot of ways, partially because it’s aspirational?). For me, I want to figure out why I have a tendency to relate a bit more to Walter White’s nihilism than the big beating heart of Jesse Pinkman. Perhaps it’s due to being the daughter of teachers.

What I do know for sure is this: at the end of the series, Walter White will be alone.

The Men Behind the Curtain: A GQ TV Roundtable

Another awesome piece from this month’s killer, D'Angelo-featuring GQ: a great, essential interview that really delineates the personalities of David Milch, Matthew Weiner, and Vince Gilligan. I loved how every time Weiner talked about how “you have to get credit for what you do,” Gilligan was diplomatic and was like, “well, we do it slightly differently” or “yes, that’s such a great point.” For a sick, sick visionary, Gilligan sounded genuinely nice and kind. Milch comes off like a wonderful college professor talking in abstracts.

So much gold, but this may be my favorite: “Bryan [Cranston] isn’t afraid to be photographed in his underpants time and time again. That’s a pretty good physicalization of his fearlessness.”

The author, Brett Martin, is writing a book on the golden age of cable TV (you wish you thought of it, don’t you? I do!), tentatively titled Difficult Men. I wonder what the next act will be for Weiner and Gilligan, given that Mad Men and Breaking Bad are hurtling towards the end?

Armando Iannucci is a comedy genius

I really don’t say that lightly. Peter Cook’s probably smiling down on him.


I made a list for GQ about 10 of the best insults to come out of Iannucci’s oeuvre, which includes The Thick Of It, In The Loop*, The Day Today, and I’m Alan Partridge. I didn’t know he had his own show on the BBC, too. He’s very Scottish! 

*Inside baseball, but it’s a shame In The Loop was released by the teensy IFC. Stupid economy! If a Fox Searchlight had got their hands on it, it would’ve gotten the Oscar noms it deserved, not just a token Best Screenplay. Arguably one of the best political satires ever.

Click on this and laugh in the most not safe for work way possible.

logic vs. emotion

I just went through all five seasons of Friday Night Lights and it was glorious. The thing that I think is sort of funny about the show is that… logically, there were so many holes. How old was Tim Riggins, really? Characters switched classes and schools oh-so-easily. But I was okay with it because the emotional core of the show was so strong. I’m not quite sure how it got pulled off, maybe because the style was documentary hand-held, maybe because the actors were generally unfamiliar and worked with the scripts until the dialogue felt like riffing… I cared about the characters on this show in a way I don’t, generally, with TV. (It wasn’t just about “the moments,” which is a feint of an argument that justifies liking boring mumblecore films and Mad Men.) And Coach and Mrs. Coach, what a great, sexy, adult relationship. Seeing two smart people in a grown relationship is a valuable thing in these times.

Heather Havilresky’s piece in the New York Times Magazine nails some of the show’s greatness, cannily comparing it to the empty, emotionally bankrupt calories of Glee: “The real message of “Friday Night Lights” is a message about the joy of little things: the awkward thrills of a first kiss; the strange blessing of an unexpected rainstorm on a lonely walk home from a rough football practice; the startling surge of nostalgia incited by the illumination of football-stadium lights just as the autumn sun is setting; the rush of gratitude, in an otherwise mundane moment, that comes from realizing that this (admittedly flawed) human being that you’re squabbling with intends to have your back for the rest of your life. If “Glee” is about expressing yourself, believing in yourself and loving yourself all the way to a moment of pure adrenaline-fueled glory, then “Friday Night Lights” is about breathing in and appreciating the small, somewhat-imperfect moments that make up an average life.

I’ve been working on something that I’m utterly frustrated with, and I think part of the reason things aren’t working out for it in a variety of ways is that it goes against some of the easy storytelling found in certain genres. It’s dark and weird, and it’s trying to be a response to some of the “you are the CHOSEN ONE” stories. The narrative of specialness. But if you do that, you need to nail every single emotional event and pain in someone’s life. I learned that from Friday Night Lights. We’ll see what happens.

Dating Jared Leto

There was a point in time where Jared Leto was dating a whole slew of twenty something actresses, and it made no sense. He was in his has-been phase, or he was pursuing his band or whatever (and they are inexplicably big, I believe). But seeing him squiring the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Lindsay Lohan confirmed one thing: the myth of Jordan Catalano lives on. These actresses are all younger than me, and my guess is they saw My So-Called Life in a tender, vulnerable time in their lives - and getting older, and hotter, they got to actually date Jordan Catalano and live the dream. Getting the chance to date Jared Leto must’ve been, for them, a moment in time where they were Angela Chase in the boiler room.

I saw Temple Grandin last year, kind of by accident, one of those movies that you settle on when you’re at a friend’s house and they have 500 channels on cable. If Temple Grandin had been released theatrically, mark my words, Claire Danes would’ve won the Oscar for best actress. Easily. (Which in itself is funny, because I bet she and Natalie Portman have been competing for parts since they were luminous teen actresses.) The movie was good, and it felt, somewhat, like a movie that would’ve been released theatrically even five years ago, as a passion project. Was Harvey Weinstein asleep at the wheel? It’s great that HBO put it out, but it would’ve been nice for the total media saturation that you would’ve gotten with a movie. Claire Danes won awards the whole season long, fifteen years after I thought that she was the best teenage actress I had ever seen.

I suppose Glee is filling the same role for kids that My So-Called Life did for me. I saw My So-Called Life when I was in seventh grade. It was aspirational. I looked up to Angela Chase as a friend and I knew that I would be her, in some form or fashion, in the future. My best friend dyed her hair kool-aid red and it washed out in a day. I’ve been rewatching the show with my boo recently; he never saw it, and letting him in on it feels like letting him in on secret teenage me. I wonder how Glee is affecting seventh graders these days. It has to be, in some ways, a really resonant time to be a gay teenager and to see some version of your life reflected in TV these days - and that’s what I think is important about Glee, which is just spottily entertaining - but ultimately, when it comes to realistic, well-written characters that you care about, it really can’t hold much of a candle up to My So-Called Life. It’s the rare show that gets that deeply inside someone’s specific human experience. But the echoes are kind of interesting.