I finally got caught up on Breaking Bad, the surrealistically tinged drama about a high-school chemistry teacher who contracts lung cancer and, wanting to put a quick little something by for his family, begins manufacturing methamphetamine—a decision that brings out sides of himself which have never seen the light of day. The show’s first season was riddled with flaws but I never could quite shake its vibe from my cranial caverns; the second season is largely a huge pleasure, with a storyline that’s turned into a sinuous and extremely dark journey. My complaints about the show are large ones, though, and none of them have gone away:
- Lifts from other shows are too obvious (“Four Days Out” is a reworking of The Sopranos’ “Pine Barrens” with nothing like its depth) while other scenes, such as the one featuring the little bicycle assassin (who looks inspired by a particular moment in The Wire), are so predictable as to be painful.
- Its attempts at humor, rare to begin with, are usually forced and only fitfully successful. The scene where a narc busts one of Jesse’s dealers (in a very Wire-esque pre-credit sequence) is telegraphed from the get-go, yet it goes on and on, milking a myth—that cops have to identify themselves as officers if asked—that was old hat 40 years ago, and which nobody believed even then.
- Far too many scenes between the central characters Walt and Jesse repeat each other, with Jesse doing something unaccountably stupid and Walt chewing him out using the same tone and language he used the last time Jesse did something stupid.
- The dialogue is often just TV-clever, with the characters jerking off for the audience rather than talking to each other. If Walt is going to twitch and tweak and flop around every time someone asks him a simple question, that’s fine; what’s not fine is for the other characters to never notice these St. Vitus’ Meltdowns (or to be put off too easily by his rote assurances). The trend continues in the opener of Season 3, with the mute cartel hitmen who do everything in unison (why?) and a high-school principal who hands an open mike to the last person a real principal in that situation would give it to.
- The notion that every moment of the show should work to create tension is cheap and, in the end, counterproductive. Breaking Bad is so intent on not having any relaxed or normal moments, moments where the characters are just sitting around and feeling okay about things, even for a second, that it can be fatiguing to watch it. Even a nothing little driveway scene has to be jazzed up with a remote-controlled car which keeps whizzing around Walt’s feet; the scene ends with a real car crushing the toy car, a bah-duh-bum of pseudo-snappiness which plays like the toast popping up in The Graduate. Nor does it help when Walt reacts to it with his patented doleful expression, as if “in the death of that little plastic car he foresees his own death,” or…something. All I know is, it’s icky.
- The show’s surrealistic bent sometimes makes it trip into troughs of mistypoo self-importance, with things like the mid-air jet-crash and (in Season 3) the villagers who approach a cartel shrine by crawling to it, even over great distances, on their bellies. What Vince Gilligan is trying for with these outtakes from The X-Files is a mystery; one hopes there’s more to it than “It feels weird.” In any case, it’ll be interesting to see what he has left to top himself with by the end of the show’s run.
That’s a pretty serious list of complaints, yet I still enjoyed Breaking Bad’s second season, and in spots I was in awe of it. Flourishes like the narcocorrido video or the lyrical little out-of-body sequence when Jesse tries junk for the first time all work like gangbusters, additions such as the junkie with a Bettie Page haircut and the nebbishy restaurateur who turns out to be a drug kingpin improved the show’s population, and the introduction of another major character—Bob Odenkirk’s interestingly principled shyster—was elegantly parlayed into a great little sequence involving a professional convict. There’s also the consistently mind-boggling cinematography of Mike Slovis, whose surface brattiness and atomic attention to detail does a better job of illustrating the stresses and quandaries of Walt’s existence than anything in the show’s scripts. (The show’s mixture of thuds and successes, and the near wildness in Gilligan’s willingness to try anything on, mostly reminds me of the Paul Thomas Anderson who made Boogie Nights and Magnolia.)
Breaking Bad may be the more ambitious show, but on first blush, at least, I felt a lot more at home after just two episodes of Justified. Timothy Olyphant stars as Raylan Givens, a droll, no-bullshit U.S. marshal who, after a messy little shooting in Miami, is transferred back to the Kentucky coal country where he grew up. Givens is an Elmore Leonard creation, and the show conveys intact most of Leonard’s many fine qualities: constantly fudged moral boundaries, ingenious plotting, off-color dialogue with an extremely high smart-ass quotient, and a passel of funny, flavorful characters who often provide the heart of the story. (One boundary is less happily fudged: Justified’s talented cast looks capable of many things, but passing as children of the people we saw in Harlan County U.S.A. is not one of them.) The last line of Justified’s pilot episode hints that things will soon take a more serious turn, but until they do, watching Seth Bullock pop neo-Nazis in the chops with their own scatterguns makes for some wonderful entertainment.