Category Archives: television

Game-changing: plotting in Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones

Following on from my previous post about Breaking Bad, I want to talk about its approach to plotting and the similarities it shares with George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series of novels, which I started reading recently.
A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series (and the recent HBO TV adaptation based on it), begins with a clear setup; despite having several POV characters, we know our hero is meant to be, and we know what form the primary conflict of the story will take. At first, that is, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. As this blog post puts it:
Much of that, I think, goes to Martin’s playing around with different ways to deal with rising action than simply resolve it in a climax. In Game of Thrones, Martin initially does give us a hero in Ned Stark, antagonists in the Lannister clan, and the sharply-defined conflict of the eponymous “game of thrones” they play against each other. The action rises traditionally enough at first, but then, instead of resolving, the arc disintegrates.
Martin delights in defying expectations and delivering some genuinely shocking moments to the reader. By the end of A Game Of Thrones, the central dynamic that was set up within the established order of his world has broken apart: we are now presented with a number of different noble families and assorted individuals moving against each other in a vast array of shifting alliances.

Breaking Badfeatures a number of differences in its storytelling. The very clear preoccupation of the series is whether Walt (and his family) will stay alive and ensure the same for his partner and family. Vince Gilligan isn’t as kill-happy with his characters as Martin is; but he is still fond of subverting the traditional instigation-rising action-climax-denouement storytelling model.The third season, for example, begins with the appearance of a clear threat to Walt. He remains unaware of the menace bearing down on him for almost half the season — until a shocking explosion of violence shatters the previous directions the characters had taken. Reactions to this break inform everything that happens, right up until another threat emerges at the very end of the season, creating a terrific cliffhanger.

Gilligan has explicitly stated his intention to keep changing the status quo:

“Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” saysBreaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan. “When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” So Gilligan designed Breaking Bad to transform its hero into a villain…

and this can be seen in the way he keeps pulling the rug out from under our established view of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Martin’s novels and Breaking Bad both keep their audiences on their toes using this technique. Instead of a slow build to a climax, shocking twists hit you from out of nowhere, leaving existing subplots to spin off into their own stories, which in turn crash into each other to be obliterated or continue on a new course. It’s not an approach for every narrative, but it’s a wonderful way to blindside the audience and keep a story innovative.

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Horror and crime: Breaking Bad vs. The Shadow Line

There are a couple of TV shows I’ve been watching recently. One’s British, the other’s American. One’s a limited series, the other’s currently on its fourth season. I like one far more than the other, but they’ve both taught me a lot about a certain kind of crime show, and when an examination of morality ultimately fades into a horror story.

“…Because you’re wearing gloves.”

 The Shadow Line is a seven-part drama series aired on the BBC recently. Written and directed by Hugo Blick, it follows the dual investigations of the police and criminals into the murder of a gangster.

While it’s byzantine, over-stylised and unafraid of being pretentious and self-indulgent, it’s also well-worth watching despite its flaws. Its creation of a specific and absorbing atmosphere is second to none. And this atmosphere is not entirely related to the crime or even noir genres. As this excellent blog post put it:

the monster of the show– and I very much use the word monster instead of villain on purpose to distinguish it from THE WIRE… That monster is very real and very much a part of our world– the monster is corruption.

The Shadow Line specialises in a kind of despairing, existential horror, the sort that features in HP Lovecraft stories. The characters can struggle all they want, but this is The Way The World Is – the good are crushed and the bad triumph in the end. It’s a worldview common to the conspiracy thriller sub-genre, particularly the ones the BBC did so well back in the 1970s and 80s (and to which The Shadow Line is explicitly harking back).

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, offers up a moral horror. It’s the horror that comes from watching an at-first sympathetic character becoming more and more irredeemable. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a nebbishy high-school chemistry teacher and the series’ protagonist, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and makes the decision to start cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after his death.

It began as a (seeming) act of desperation taken by a dying man. But as the series has gone on, we’ve seen Walt take ever more ruthless measures to keep himself alive. We see him cause huge amounts of pain, suffering and death. And as the bodies pile up around him, he never falters in his constant efforts to justify himself. It’s not just Walt; all the characters know right and wrong. But they do the wrong thing anyway.

“A man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it … because he’s a man.”

The message of The Shadow Line is “don’t go there/do that or the monster will get you”. Breaking Bad’s power comes from watching the hero become the monster. Walt has a lifetime of rage and resentment built up inside him, and his pride, along with the opportunity to excel at the work involved in his deadly business and unleash his id in the guise of his Heisenberg persona, create a deadly mixture.

(Brief aside: a regular featureof the Audio Assault podcast, named Lab Notes, specialises in discussing each episode of Breaking Bad’s current fourth season, and comes highly recommended by yours truly.)

The word “hauntology” has been applied to The Shadow Line before, and the surreal, often-nightmarish atmosphere it evokes suggest a kind of TV reality that is fuzzy at the edges. The figure of Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), in particular, appears as an echo from the wave of secret-state thrillers produced by British TV in the 70s and 80s.

They too, specialised in buried secrets, where knowledge was the real danger. Often the theme is of Britainas a small country packed full of history. Layers pile upon layers, the past granting the present more meaning – as with the ancient stone circle, resembling a target, where the climactic sequence of The Shadow Line takes place.

Breaking Bad offers a different geography. The show’s mileu is retail parks, fast-food joints and identical subdivisions, where horrific events take place hidden in plain sight. An alternate landscape of crime, horror and death is mapped onto suburbia – the meth lab under the industrial laundry, the shoot-out in the shopping centre’s car park.

At the same time, the series sketches in the background the disintegration of the middle-class American dream. Pre-diagnosis, Walt was forced to take a second job at a car wash to supplement his income as a teacher. The inability to meet medical bills, for Walt and others, is a recurring plotline in the show. The ghost haunting at the edges of Breaking Bad is the suggestion that this very middle-American nightmare, minus the meth-dealing, is now a fact for millions of people.

The nightmarishness of both series comes not only from the subject matter, but also from the pacing. They revel in the clenched-knuckle slowness of a car crash, of knowing something horrible is going to happen but being powerless to stop it. Breaking Bad specialises in “bottle episodes”; self-contained, single-location stories that show the characters trapped physically, as well as metaphorically (plenty of TV shows do this, but BB does it better than almost anyone else), drawing out the tension to almost unbearable levels.

Both The Shadow Line and Breaking Bad are horror masquerading as crime. They are perfect series for a world where we have ever more information, but less idea of what to do with it. We know of the myriad dangers lurking in the shadows, or about to meet us up ahead, but we simply remain glued to the screen, eyes open.

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Look Closer: the visual style of The Wire and Treme

David Simon’s new HBO drama, Treme, now in its second series in the US, depicts a disparate group of people living in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s received a mixed critical reception, with many critics comparing it unfavourably to The Wire, the exploration of urban dysfunction that is Simon’s undoubted masterpiece. While at first glance, comparing Treme and The Wire seems counterproductive, I’m going to take a look at the style of both shows, and how that style points up their significant differences.

(A brief note: this piece has been inspired both by discussion on Twitter and the latest TV On The Internet podcast. Discussion of Treme begins at 1 hour 10 minutes in.)

The Wire moves at an extremely deliberate pace. Aside from the odd visual flourish in the pilot, like incorporating surveillance footage into certain scenes, the series stays rooted in a polished, assured and unshowy realism. This is not the jittery, documentary-style verité camerawork of Homicide: Life On The Street, the other series about police work in Baltimore to be adapted from Simon’s writings.

The Wire will often employ filmic techniques rarely used on the small screen, such as shooting a conversation with both characters in the frame instead of alternating over-the-shoulder shots, or pulling in on one character while another talks. This is part of the overall confidence of the show and its creator, that it can ease us into an alien and often confusing world, without spoon feeding us, and we will learn to find our way through it.

Style and creator are here inseparable. Simon as a person is righteous, highly focused, with a fixation on clarity and a deep contempt for obfuscation. Read any interview with him – this recent one is a good example – and those qualities will be on display.

This focus and control comes through in the look of the show. Every shot and camera movement is precise and meticulous. The Wire, as well as Simon’s other series – The Corner (which preceded The Wire), Generation Kill, and now Treme – look and work like well-calibrated pieces of machinery where every part interlocks and works towards a single goal.

But does that work for all the series he’s made? That kind of low-key realism is an asset when making fictionalised accounts of true events (The Corner, Generation Kill), or a explicitly polemical show about the interconnected problems of an American city. I happen to think Treme is different to both of those categories. Yes, there are moments of polemic, but overall it’s a much more easygoing show. The story is one of attempts by the various characters to rebuild their city and their lives.

Treme moves at more or less the same pace as The Wire, but without the cops-versus-crooks angle to hook audience interests. But the intent is the same; to immerse the viewer into a new world and gradually explain how it operates. Where The Wire’s focus is sociological, Treme’s is cultural. I personally love the hanging-out aspect of the show; there’s a sense rarely present in other TV shows, that the world and the characters exist for themselves and not just for the audience. We’re just bystanders, lucky enough to have a seat and watch the world go by.

Which brings me to my actual point – the drawbacks of doing such a laid-back series with such a buttoned-up visual style. You find yourself wishing that the show would relax a little. The closest thing to Treme in terms of narrative DNA (apart from The Wire) would probably be Robert Altman’s sprawling ensemble pieces, and the show could benefit from a looser, Altman-esque take. (Given the value Simon places on precise phrasing, I doubt he’d be too open to improvisation, but I could be wrong.) Or perhaps a handheld, documentary-style approach in common with Homicide.

All this speculation aside, Simon made the series his way, and he made what is to me an absorbing and atmospheric examination of a city and a culture fighting against obliteration. It’s not The Wire, but then again, it was never intended to be.

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The Moore Than This Lost Awards

So, having finished up my finale review, which included some thoughts of mine on the series as a whole, I realised I wanted to go back to the well (or button, or frozen donkey wheel, or whatever your prefer) and write some more. So here are my awards for the best and worst bits of Lost across the whole run of the series. And if you still fancy some more opinion, then check out two very talented writers’ takes on the finale and the series: The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray wraps up his excellent coverage with a review and summing-up on serialised television, and Todd VanDerWerff at the L.A Times, who gives us an impassioned defence of the finale against fans’ and detractors’ objections, and a personal view of what the series meant to him.

And now, my awards.

[Once again, MAJOR SPOILERS for the entire series below the jump.]

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“The End”: Thoughts on the Lost finale (SPOILERS WITHIN)

Last Sunday, Lost finished its six-year run with the final episode, appropriately titled “The End”. I sat down to the recorded finale on Monday, eager to see how the show would finish. While I’ve always been a fan of Lost, there are two distinct phases to my fandom. The first was “this is a fun show”, lasting up to Season 3. Beyond that, it got continually better and better, with the quality of discussion, online and offline, adding to the experience.

[Warning: this post features MAJOR SPOILERS for the entire series, INCLUDING THE FINALE, so proceed with caution.]

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A Tale Of Two Procedurals: Justified vs. Luther

Sometimes you have to make connections between works of art. And sometimes the connections will be painfully obvious to you, and instructive. This week I watched the first episodes of BBC1’s new cop drama Luther, starring Idris Elba, and FX’s new cop drama Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant.

Here’s the thing: I love crime fiction and police procedurals, and I will watch  or read nearly anything featuring cops or crooks simply to see how different approaches to similar set-ups yield different results. There are superficial similarities between Justified and Luther: both series deal with tough, maverick lawmen. (Elba is famous for his portrayal of cool, ruthless drug dealer Stringer Bell on official Best TV Show Ever™ The Wire. Olyphant’s most famous role is the constantly enraged sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO’s masterful Western series Deadwood.) Both begin with their protagonists returning to work in the aftermath of a controversial case. Both characters are estranged from their wives, and have bosses who put up with their shenanigans because they get results, you stupid chief! But there is a world of difference in execution of the concept.

It was lucky for me that I watched the first episodes of Luther and Justified almost back-to-back. Compared to each other, they are the How-To and How-Not-To of procedural writing.

In fact, you could play back both episodes simultaneously and see the incredible difference in plot covered, and more importantly, how it keeps the audience interested. Both episodes have the job of setting up the series, and Justified establishes that within the first five or so minutes, as well as giving us a neat, tense opening, and perfectly sketching out Olyphant’s US Marshal Raylen Givens. We see him travel back to his home town, are filled in on the supporting cast and the central conflict of the show, all in a way that feels organic and subtle.

Luther, on the other hand, commits the cardinal sin of any genre TV show – it’s a crashing bore. Scenes crawl by lazily, filled with rambling self-indulgent dialogue that either reiterates stuff we already know, or goes on rhetorical flights of fancy where cop and suspect swap juvenile pseudo-philosophy. This kind of writing is meant to seem high-flown and intellectual, but more often than not, to use a literary term, it’s just shit.

Justified’s characters shoot the breeze like normal people, but inside the chitchat is buried tons of information about character and backstory. (I’d put this down to the influence of Elmore Leonard, on whose novels the series is based – he’s a master at dialogue.) A good writer can make the mundane seem important. A bad writer thinks all good writing should sound important, and creates dialogue that aims for clever and ends up at stupid.

And Justified surges ahead on acting as well, giving Olyphant’s easy-going yet steely performance room to breathe. His face-offs with Walton Goggins’ childhood friend turned neo-Nazi mix menace and human moments, as two great actors do their thing with a minimum of interference or histrionics. Luther does no such thing, relying on crashingly unsubtle cues for the actors to go with their dialogue. The low point comes when Luther destroys a clearly-made-of-balsa-wood door in a disastrously inept, clichéd moment of ActingRage™. It made me laugh out loud the first I saw it – the series was dead in the water from that moment on. (I’m always willing to give Elba the benefit of the doubt – he’s undoubtedly a talented actor, but I’m not going to begrudge his taking material that is clearly beneath him in order to build his profiles).

Simply put, there is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do a genre show made from stock elements. I haven’t seen a British drama series in years that can stack up with the best of American TV, but judging by this even a decent procedural is beyond our capabilities.

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Back to the past: rewatching Mad Men

As the third season of acclaimed US TV drama Mad Men gets underway in the States, I’ve decided to go back over the first season on DVD, to see if what is now one of my favourite shows ever looks different on a second viewing. This piece will combine impressions of the first episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, with consideration of how the show has grown from its origins. (Contains spoilers for the first episode, and general discussion of subsequent ones.)

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On its debut, Mad Men seemed extremely committed to proving the old maxim that “the past is a different country; they do things differently there.” The world of 1960s America, as seen from the New York advertising industry, seems impossibly remote, and is made to look and feel so. One of the most well-known aspects of the show is its poised elegance, not only in set and costume design, but also in the composition and editing of its shots (particularly the office sequences, which owe a lot to The Apartment). There is a deliberate sense of distancing from the characters and the period they live in, at first holding up the 60s as a polished façade, then delving beneath the surface.

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The first we see of Don Draper, Madison Avenue adman and the closest thing we’ll have in the series to a hero, is the back of his head as he leans back in his chair – a deliberate mirror of the last shot of the opening credits sequence. There’s a deliberate opacity to this introduction: we know no more about him than the black waiter he chats with about preferred brands of cigarettes, or the other patrons at the bar (all also smoking) who he studies in slow motion. His job is getting into people’s heads and working out what they want, but we already get the sense that he himself is a closed book.

The flipside of this polish is a fascination with the clothes, the lifestyle (drinking in the office!), and the sexual adventures of the privileged few in this era of unprecedented prosperity. But the series is just as interested in showing how the not-so-privileged fare. We follow Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) on her first day as a secretary, and witness her dealing with the rampant sexism of the young creatives, and the sly put-downs of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the immaculately poised queen of the typing pool.

It’s a tough ride for Peggy. A recurring motif is her seeing another secretary crying in the ladies’ toilets; by the end of the day she is no longer visibly upset at this. Indeed, there are hints of the inner steeliness she will have to develop to make it in this world. (Not to spoil anything, but Peggy’s journey is one of the most fascinating parts of the show.) From an appointment with a doctor (smoking, of course) to provide her with the contraceptive pill, to a highly charged encounter with newly-married creative Pete Campbell, she seems to be breaking free of the gender roles that are presented as omnipresent.

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And on that note … oh, Pete Campbell. I don’t think I’ve ever loved and loathed a fictional character so much at the same time. Any actor can get a decent amount of acclaim by playing a psychopathic bad guy, dripping charisma and chewing scenery. To me, it takes real bravery to abandon all pretences of vanity and play your character (as Vincent Kartheiser does brilliantly) as a complete douchebag.

The excellently slimy Campbell is a man who tries to walk the walk, but constantly fails. From the frequent mentions of his moneyed origins, to the slightly-too-tight bright blue suits he wears, subtle details give him away as (quite literally) a boy in men’s clothing. His efforts to outflank Draper at a crucial presentation to the top brass of Lucky Strike cigarettes are weaselly, but almost understandable, when earlier in the episode we see alpha-male Don brush off his pathetically eager attempts at friendship.

Here we have the essential dynamics of the season, and maybe even the series; the man who is supposed to have it all, yet feels empty; the woman who wants more than to be a pretty face at a typewriter; and the boy-turned-man who finds the traditional masculine roles much tougher than they appear.

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And yet, and yet … there is a lot about Mad Men’s first episode that feels rough and unformed, especially in contrast to what will come later. Don, Peggy and Pete are pretty much perfectly formed right out of the gate, but it’s surprising on a second watch how much of the supporting cast is barely sketched in. The creatives and account managers – Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, and Paul Kinsey – are an indistinguishable bunch of rowdy schoolboys, and Joan at this point is just a stylish/bitchy female, with little hint of the depths her character will acquire. The same goes for Don’s boss Roger Sterling (Jon Slattery), and even Don’s wife Betty (January Jones) who only appears at the end of the episode.

If supporting characters are only sketched in during the pilot, the setting is laid on very thickly indeed. There are numerous instances of unsubtle period detail: Joan, showing Peggy her desk, which features a typewriter and speakerphone, remarks “Try not to be intimidated by all this new technology”. Don, while confronting Pete over stolen material in the pitch meeting, wisecracks, “It’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things.” Couple this with the numerous shots of people smoking in wildly inappropriate numbers and situations, and Mad Men starts off almost desperate to assure its viewers of the gulf between the past and today.

However, this clumsiness quickly fades as the series progresses, and the characters and setting become deeper. An apt comparison to this progression would be The Wire. For all its groundbreaking qualities, the first episode features a lot of cop-show clichés; the untouchable crime lord, the maverick cop looking to bring him down, the ball-busting superior, etc. But from these stock elements and exposition, it builds a cohesive world that will sustain all the inventive directions that David Simon et al will take it over five seasons.

Mad Men came to screens with buzz around its creator Matthew Weiner, a former writer on The Sopranos, and the setting and subject matter. But buzz will only get you so far. Mad Men’s first episode is an extremely assured and confident debut that may not have every detail of the series intact, but embarks on a journey that will use the medium of serial television to its full potential. Two series later, I’m more than happy to be along for the ride.

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