Tag Archives: Breaking Bad

The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mailbag: Why TV is Good (for me, at least)

“Why do you watch so much TV? And how? I’d think you’d wanna read books more than watch TV!” ~ H.J., Trenton

I love books. I wouldn’t be a grad student now if I didn’t. But I watch TV too, and love it, because TV, as ABC told peeps in  network ad campaign a few years ago, is good. Maybe not always good for you—which I suspect you believe this, which is why you ask this question—but definitely good. See, there are a few things you should know about me:

  • I love movies. Growing up, I was borderline obsessive about movies. And movie stars. And directors. And movie trivia, and history.
  • I love narrative, and characters. Which you can probably tell from a lot of the posts I’ve written right here at the blog.
  • I love BIG narrative, sprawling, long, grand storytelling.
  • My favorite flicks are, maybe, The Godfather (I/II), All About Eve, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Tootsie, Claudine and Titanic. And at the risk of sounding like an old, cliche-ridden fuddy-duddy…they don’t make em like that anymore.

As for movies, somewhere around when I dropped out of college, back in 1990, movies started, in my opinion, to get pretty bad. Special effects were on the rise; characterization was on the wane. Even a lot of the so-called high-brow “indie” flicks that I was supposed to like, being, you know, “middle class” and “educated” (haha), didn’t engage me beyond the hipster cred they were supposed to endow upon me. Going to the movies started to feel like an expensive bore, a reason to go on dates or stay in the general pop culture conversation rather than the transcendent experience movie-going had been for me as a teenager.

That was around the time I started to see how smart many TV shows actually were in comparison. Shows like Law & Order, L.A. Law, thirtysomething (and even sitcoms like Roseanne and Seinfeld) just felt like richer viewing experiences that welcomed (and blossomed with) repeated viewings that exposed nuances beyond the surface appeal. A season of Knots Landing felt like a sexy page-turning thriller. The X-Files was spookier than any sci-fi crap coming down the movie pike, with better stories. And as good as those shows were, we weren’t even close to the next so-called Golden Age of TV that would start in the late 90s and continue right up to today, with its almost novelistic attention to texture and character and detail that absorbs you right in. You could tell something was going on in TV when many movie and theater writers, stars like Aaron Sorkin, started to gravitate to TV, and not just for the money, but because they could stretch out and tell an interesting, long-form story that allowed them time to develop characters and deal with mature themes—the sorta themes you weren’t going to find in the typical thrill-ride cineplex offering that had to appeal to everyone (but especially little boys) to feel like a success. Even the so-called prestige Hollywood pic seemed to be dumber than usual (this would be  a good place to call out American Beauty again, but I’ve beaten up on that poor horse so much I’m starting to feel sorry for it.)

Once HBO decided to devote itself to narrative dramas and sitcoms, the gig for movies, as far as I was concerned, was up. Even if HBO positioned itself as TV for people who didn’t really watch TV—it wasn’t TV, remember, it was, ahem, HBO—it was, nonetheless the place to go for narrative genius, for sophisticated storytelling, for flawed, dynamic characters. A place where you didn’t feel stupid getting involved in the action. A place that gave birth to Showtime’s beauts like the criminally-underrated and underexposed Brotherhood, and TNT knowing drama as they do now with The Closer and other good shows.

So, there you go. I watch TV because, on the real? Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Weeds, Rescue Me, The Good Wife, Louie, Modern Family, Vampire Diaries, Dexter—as well as dearly-departed shows like The Wire, The Shield, The Gilmore Girls and The Sopranos—make movie writing and acting look like bad high school plays that only want to suck your brain as dry as your wallet. Even the bowlderdized rerun episodes of Sex and the City are smarter and funnier than any of the chick-flick movies made in the few years since the show became such a cultural touchstone (and that’s including the movies based on the actual show!) And frankly, other than perhaps the Avatar-scale visual grandness you can only get in the movie house, TV shows just look better than movies these days. (I think there’s a conspiracy in Hollywood to make actresses look as bad as possible—compare Kyra Sedwick on The Closer or Regina King on Southland vs the Sex and the City gals of late!—perhaps to get them all to retire so that the execs can only greenlight boy-films by boys for boys who aren’t all that interested in girls yet?)

And oh yeh, as for how I do it? DVR is a wonderful thing, baby. (And I must give a shout-out to Moms Bryant, for introducing me not only to literature but also to the greatness that was I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and TheHoneymooners , TV classics all.)

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SPB’s Emmy observations: The Good (Wife), the Bad, & the Snubbed

Just some random thoughts about the newly-announced Emmy nominations:

  • Other than Andre Braugher, who I wrote about recently, there must not be any black folks doing quality acting on TV these days, just like back when The Wire was the best show on TV and never got any acting nominations. Where’s Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette on True Blood) or Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) or Regina King (Southland)…CLUTCH magazine wonders the same thing.
  • Really happy to see Archie Panjabi snag a nom for her supporting work on The Good Wife. Not only is she one of the sexiest (and coolly sexually undefinable) women on TV, her fierce combination of smarts, wiliness, attitude and dry humor makes her Kalinda one of the brightest new characters on TV…the read is, if this was a fair world—and Lord knows I love me some Julianna Margulies, who has managed to make me forget, week to week (in a good way), the wonderful-ness that was ER‘s Carol Hathaway—Panjabi would be playing The Good Wife instead of just saving her ass every week. Plus, she’s the best leather-wearer—jacket and oh-so-sexy boots—on TV.

  • Discovered Modern Family way late—and watched the entire hilarious first season in three days a coupla months ago—and I’m very happy for Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet’s noms as the crazy gay couple on the show. Their interaction is so real and funny I wanna be Cam and Mitch’s new BFFs—as long as they wouldn’t ask me to babysit. Stonestreet’s a genius at awkward humor and his sidelong glances rival Bea Arthur’s as Dorothy Zbornak on Golden Girls. Oh yeh, big up to Julie Bowen, too: the Brown University TV mafia rolls on!
  • Um, who REALLY thinks True Blood (which I also wrote about earlier) was as good this second season, as the first fun/silly season of the overrated show? Let alone good enough to be in the same Best Drama category as the sublimely good and always entertaining Good Wife, Mad Men, Breaking Bad or the extra-special Dexter? Clearly True Blood took Friday Night Lights‘ spot on the nomination roster. Did it get the nom because it’s the closest thing TV has to a “gay” show? That’s probably politically incorrect to say—or maybe I’m just not as trendily motivated as some?—but there you go. Otherwise I  just can’t see how this show got a Best Drama nomination.  If the Emmys really wanted to honor a vampire show, I advise they start paying attention to Vampire Diaries. Yes, it’s on The CW and yes its cast is crammed-full of pretty (overaged) teenagers, but damn if its not some of the best storytelling on TV right now, with real emotional stuff at stake (no pun intended). If you haven’t caught it, give it a try. If you’re a  true TV fan, you’ll be hooked. I assure you.

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Your Cheatin’ Heart or, TV’s Dirty (Middle-Aged) White Dudes

PRE-SCRIPT: Last year I wrote up a little thing about an odd trend I’d noticed on TV of late: Why does it seem like all the leading men characters on the “quality” TV shows that I love to watch, especially on cable, are all cheating on their wives?I dug it out in honor of tonight’s premiere of one of my favorites, Rescue Me, which details the day-to-day lives of a bunch of NYC firefighters and the loves and losses they incur as they try—not so hard, it sometimes seems—to grow up. This piece was written around the time I discovered the first season of Mad Men, which details the day-to-day lives of a bunch of NYC ad execs (in the 1960s) and the loves and losses they incur as they try—not so hard, it sometimes seems—to grow up. Since writing this, I’ve discovered a coupla more shows I’d add to the list: Showtime’s Californication, with David Duchovny as a sexaholically stumbling once-famous writer finding new life in the sunny climes of LA, and Breaking Bad, in which the excellently morose  and cancer-stricken Bryan Cranston marries himself to the drug trade as he sees his life ending before him. I titled the piece “Dirty White Boys” mostly because one rarely gets to see black middle-aged men suffer the slings and arrows of their failed dreams and hopeless home-lives–brothers rarely get to be more complex than Jesse L. Martin’s gambling detective on Law & Order a few seasons back—and you know how deep they got into back-story on that show.

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I recently spent a coupla days glued to my computer, amazed at the style and grace and novelistic tension that was the first season of AMC’s buzzy, award-winning show Mad Men. Loved everything about it: the men in their “grey flannel” suits living lives of quiet desperation to the swell of that swinging early 60s soundtrack; all the cigarette smoke and martinis and Manhattans; the knowing nods to how things have changed (pregnant women smoking and cocktailing; no child seats in the Buicks) and how they haven’t (straight white dudes still run damn near everything—well, except the country, haha!). I really loved the idea of, essentially, casting a Gregory Peck with sex appeal opposite a Grace Kelly as the rich, bored, frustrated suburban housewife Kelly might have become had she not bucked the Main Line Philly trend and went to Hollywood, then married a Monaco prince. Okay, not really Peck and Kelly, but Jon Hamm and January Jones are so on-target good as Don and Betty Draper—the repressed post-50s icons that they do play—that sometimes the show feels like a Douglas Sirk melodrama if it’d been co-written by John Cheever and Lillian Hellman.

But all that said, among his other transgressions, Draper’s cheating on his wife. Just like Tony Soprano did (and being that all these TV anti-heroes are pretty much just the cathode-ray Hi-Def Sons of Tony, it makes perfect sense, I guess). Just like Vic Mackey did on The Shield, and Jimmy McNulty did on The Wire, and Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me and Sean McNamara on Nip/Tuck. Has infidelity become the default “fatal flaw” for all the middle-aged TV heroes these days? And if so, why? Is it because rogue dudes make for more interesting viewing (and screwing)? Are these the proto-typical guys who other most guys wanna be and every woman wants fuck? Or are all the writers and creators of these shows lost in some post-Updikean literary netherworld where they think the push-and-pull passions of cheating spouses somehow rises their characters to the level of art? Perhaps it’s some blue-stated gay Hollywood agenda to prove that heterosexual love can be as wobbly, insincere, and unstable as the Religious Right (and others) claim homo love to be to prevent the desired stamp of “marriage”? I don’t know what the answer is. And I’m not trying to judge or anything but I do find it curious that almost any time I turn on the telly, I’m bombarded with the boxer-dropping shenanigans of middle-aged white dudes who positively love their wives and children to bits, but also can’t seem to get enough new pussy on the side. (And maybe I should add middle-class to that description? Interestingly, the most faithful guys I’ve seen on TV lately are a ragtag bunch of low-down motorcycle thugs on Sons of Anarchy, who may be surrounded by strippers and biker broads, but almost always go home to the Main Molls at home. Or is this just middle-class TV writers patronizing to the salt-of-the-earthisms that the working classes do so well?) Maybe the answer is to give myself over to Big Love, which I haven’t seen since the first episode bored me to tears a coupla years ago—is it still even on? At least that character got to marry all his potential mistresses. Or I’ll just have to watch Desperate Housewives, where the husbands are pretty boring and disposable, but at least they sleep in their own beds most of the time.

The only TV hero I watch consistently who’s not cheating on his wife—though he is pretty dirty (did anyone catch him basically jerking of on his best friend’s couch earlier this season?)—is not doing it because he doesn’t actually have a wife (anymore), and that’s Dr. House, the irascibly sarcastic misanthrope who also manages to make a living as a world-class diagnostician, who frequents hookers and pops (popped?) pills with a vengeance. Then again, I guess if he was still with his wife—who was played by the luminous Sela Ward, who I love, but is also, it sometimes seems, one of TV’s most cheated-on women—he’d have reason to cheat. It was her decision to allow the surgery that basically crippled him. Here’s to love…

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POSTSCRIPT: Please, if you haven’t already, please check out a new show on TNT (because They Know Drama) called Men of a Certain Age, not only because Ray Romano smartly puts a sad, comic spin on the crises of middle-aged American guys that feels thoroughly true and felt and considered, he was also brilliant enough to show that this is not the sole domain of white dudes who don’t have the knees to shoot hoops like they used to, that black men can be some fucked-up, father-hating, sad sacks too. Andre Braugher, TV’s reigning Important Black Actor these days (and deservedly so), is so good as the put-upon Owen Thoreau, you sometimes have to close your eyes so as not to see the drawn, blank look in his eyes that speaks to a life of bad mistakes and thwarted desire, of a guy struggling to make emotional ends meet somewhere in the middle of life. It’s sublime work. Check it out. The sad dirty dudes don’t always have to be white. Langston Hughes’s crystal stairs and raisins in the sun resonate as strongly as Updike’s running Rabbit—and hit you as squarely in the gut.

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