Thursday, June 04, 2009

Breaking Bad, Breaking the Cycle

Breaking Bad, Breaking the Cycle: Robert Fulford at the National Post has made a sharp observation about the life cycle of a TV series. To summarize, he identifies four phases: 1) Primitive, when the characters, plots and concepts are just sketches; 2) Classic, when the series hits its stride and the ideas and actors start clicking; 3) Baroque, when the scope expands and new and different elements start coming into play; 4) Decadent, which effectively means they've jumped the shark.

That's pretty accurate, and if you think back on many TV series you can easily remember the transitions points. But now at the end of the second season of Breaking Bad I tried to pigeon-hole its point on the cycle and I couldn't. The reason for that is that it was conceived from the beginning as a whole, not as an open ended enterprise that would continue as long they could find a way to keep the ratings up. This is, in fact, a common thread among the recent explosion of quality TV drama. The Sopranos, Six Feet under, The Wire, Deadwood (even though it wasn't allowed to end), and currently Mad Men and Breaking Bad on AMC. All of these show had (or have) the end in mind either right from the start or shortly after. I am currently re-watching The Sopranos and it's easy to see that by the end of season 2 and the start of season 3 they were already forming the concepts that would guide the finale.

I'm not going to recap Breaking Bad; you can get that anywhere. I'll just say you should go rent it -- both seasons if you haven't seen season 1 yet -- before you rent any movie out there. It stands out in that while the first season was excellent, the second season exceeded it. That is truly rare in television. The other important point to make is that, despite the drug/crime themes, the story never to descends to tawdry, lurid scenes of decadence. One good thing about being on AMC instead of HBO is that they can't just toss in sex and violence for the shock value. This is a case where editorial limitations work to the show's favor. They have to keep you interested with the characters and plot twists.

If you have been watching, I suggest you check out a recent interview with Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad's creator and driving force (MAJOR SPOILERS if you haven't seen the second season). In it, he hits on much of what I have just mentioned. Although I have to say his view of Walt as someone choosing to be evil doesn't jibe with my own. I see Walt as a quasi-heroic figure, and while he has done many evil things his motivation is his need to not disappear, to affirm his existence and self-worth and, for lack of a better term, his masculine identity.

Needless to say, season three can't come soon enough for me.