This week, we have a new entry in the Idiot Boxing line-up. Out with Numb3rs (as of last week, for those who missed it), in with AMC’s Breaking Bad. It’s a show about a high school chemistry teacher (played by Malcolm in the Middle‘s Bryan Cranston) who moonlights at a car wash and still has financial problems. When a diagnosis with terminal lung cancer coincides with going on a ride-along with his DEA agent brother-in-law, he makes a decision: he’s going to start cooking crystal meth to build a nest egg for his (pregnant) wife and teenage son after he dies. He enlists the help of a former student that he sees fleeing the scene at the DEA bust, and that gets the ball rolling for an insane, hilarious, existential trip through the world of bottom-feeding Albuquerque drug dealers.
It has its problems (see below), but the pilot is enough of a creative hit for me to look forward to whatever else AMC has up its sleeve. Paired with last summer’s Mad Men, they’re rivaling FX for high-quality basic-cable programming.
Breaking Bad (AMC)—I’m not sure what to make of this show. Great premise, great cast, great location shooting in New Mexico. It’s an intensely dark comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously (Bryan Cranston’s Homer Simpson-esque screams, which he put to great use on Malcolm in the Middle, are still in full force when needed), and yet…
I have my worries about the longevity of the series. Not solely because Cranston is terminal; though his doctor predicted he wouldn’t last more than a year, it’s the nature of his disease that he could last another decade without treatment. Really, the problem is his family. His DEA agent brother-in-law, his shrew of a sister-in-law, his caring wife, his smart-ass son—these people are going to figure him out, and if any one of them does, the show is over. It’ll be a hell of a ride, but I hope the show realizes the limitations of its premise and goes out on top after a season or two—or that they have a series of aces up their sleeves that will keep this show on course even if he’s found out.
Medium (NBC)—I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated by this episode. It had a perfect setup (Allison is hired by the family of Joe’s prospective employer to find their daughter) and had a lot of nice twists—until they decided to abandon the subtlety and telegraph the ending. Maybe we were supposed to chalk it up to the goofiness of psychic dreams, but considering the way it all turned out, it made Allison appear really stupid (and not in her usual “average non-detective person” kind of way). She has a dream in which she sees the victim watching a local Phoenix newscast from the Paris hotel room in which she’s being held prisoner and doesn’t immediately put two and two together? The dioramas? The sudden clarity in that she is being held in that hotel right now and Allison is not dreaming of the honeymoon? She only pieces it together when she sees the ex-husband with a bandaged hand? Come on!
Honestly, if Allison hadn’t had a dream of the newscast, if they hadn’t drawn so much attention to the newscast—they could have come up with something subtler, maybe a little absurd, to hint at the timeframe. This had some nice writing otherwise, but that newscast bugged me.
Monk (USA)—This episode was very nearly undone by its lame red herring. I know things like this do happen, but “truth is stranger than fiction,” and strange truth shatters my suspension of disbelief. Do they expect us to believe there are only four “Julie Teegers” within 1000 miles of San Francisco, and that all four live in San Francisco, and that two of them live close enough to get their mail mixed up, and that the third just happens to be the daughter of the personal assistant of the most famous detective in the city, and that the fourth is the dead mother of a mentally disturbed man with a deep mother fixation and a profile that would match a serial killer? It had some clever notions, but I guess it disappointed me that Julie was never in any real danger. Not that it’s so great to put 16-year-old girls in danger, but they could have taken the good parts of this episode and raised the stakes a bit higher.
Fortunately, Monk is a “meaningless mystery” show, and the real joy of it is watching the characters do their thing. In that sense, this was a near-perfect episode. Traylor Howard did an exceptional job playing the panic of a mother fearing for her daughter’s life. Stottlemeyer and Disher surprised me this week by not getting pigeonholed in their usual one-dimensional roles of “angry” and “stupid” (respectively). However, they didn’t do total character 180s—the writers just stopped being lazy and made them a little more real. Disher first makes a good, competent suggestion, based on research and solid police-work; then he springs the Terminator theory on them. That’s funny, and much more interesting than having Disher be a stereotypical dumbass.
Notice I didn’t say much about Monk. This is the rare episode where his antics get into the backseat, and he becomes a useful—but not overbearing—part of the ensemble. I love Tony Shalhoub, I think he plays the character exceptionally well, but they have a great ensemble who usually get the short end of the stick because—well, when the show’s title has a character’s name, you can pretty much bet it’ll be all about him. This episode had a nicer balance, though, and showed them that it doesn’t need to be all Monk, all the time. (This isn’t a fluke, either, since last week’s episode and several from last season did a good job of using the ensemble.)
Psych (USA)—Well, the “Shawn gets cast on a telenovela” subplot was slight, even for Psych, and they labored a little too hard to build up to the barely-plausible “live show” gimmick, but this show’s always funny. It was a straightforward episode, without many interesting or unusual developments to discuss.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—Well, it looks like this show is settling into a groove that will consist of: (a) deepening the movies’ established mythology, (b) giving Sarah some sort of ethical dilemma, and (c) wacky teenage hijinks. The crazy suicide storyline was well played, but it came out of left field. I guess that’s what they want to do to make it a series, and it works (left field or not). Also, Summer Glau is hilarious in her attempts to fit in. “I’m a bitch whore,” and the makeup. Funny stuff!
Unfunny stuff: that terminator fetus thing was disgusting, but I loved the idea that these terminators are resourceful enough to seek out half-crazed scientists to do their futuristic bidding. It’s disappointing that he killed the scientist, though; they could create an intriguing layer by letting the terminators actually teach scientists how to make them, thus ensuring their eventual creation, basically undoing everything Sarah did with the cell phone salesman/Clark Kent wannabe. As a side-note, I admire that the various science references (with the probable exception of the skin-creation) are not only real but properly used. It’s surprising to see Deep Fritz referenced on a Fox show.
The Wire (HBO)—What is the deal with Chris Partlow? That’s the question that haunted me throughout this episode. Gbenga Akinnagbe, possibly in conjunction with the writers, gives us all these subtle touches—last season, when they go after Michael’s stepfather, Chris unleashes a world of pain on the man, and it’s not just for Michael’s benefit (for one thing, Michael’s not even there). No, even when Michael presents the idea to Chris and Snoop, Chris asks a few telling questions and—he knows.
Last week, Chris gave Michael an ambiguous look when Michael began questioning Marlo’s methods and authority. It might have said, “Watch yourself, or you’re next,” but I interpreted it as, “You’re thinking the same things I’m thinking, but I can’t say a word because I’m here to do a job.” He’s the muscle; they don’t pay him to think or ask questions. If he does think and ask himself the questions, he knows it’s best to keep them to himself. Besides, he always has Snoop the sociopath to help him lose his moral compass…
…but this week made me think shit will hit the fan, and Chris won’t be putting up with Marlo much longer. Another silent look—but one full of pain, guilt, and maybe even fear—into Butchie’s empty eyes, just after he shot the man. He puts on a tough front, but there’s something going on with Chris that will definitely pay off by the end of the season. I just hope Michael and/or Dukie and Bug don’t get caught in the crossfire.
Elsewhere, we had a lot of nice moments in scenes that are effectively bridgework—they continue stories set up in previous episodes, building toward a payoff in an episode down the road. It was nice to see Daniels and his ex-wife together again, even under unfortunate circumstances. I give The Wire credit for seeing this long-term arc through to its grisly conclusion. It never occurred to me, as Daniels rose through the ranks during the third and fourth seasons, that the mostly-forgotten “bad behavior” in the Eastern mentioned in the first season would come back to bite him in the ass.
This is going to underscore the artificiality of the media yet again. First, douchebag Scott makes up a fake quote from Campbell, which puts Burrell on the offensive and could end up destroying both Cedric and Marla’s careers. Then, as this story “develops,” with Burrell going public with What He Knows, do you think anybody will dig deeper and point out that there’s about 10 years and a whole assload of soul-searching between the Bad Old Eastern Days and Colonel Cedric Daniels.
Speaking of the media, we got some more development from the Sun players. Gus is still kind of a dick, but at least he’s entertaining about it. Cutbacks have forced layoffs, and in an illustration of David Simon’s exact frustrations with the print media, they let go of “deadwood” like Twigg—who can rattle off Daniels’s whole biography off the top of his head—and hang on to Scott, who makes up plausible quotes because he’s too lazy, apathetic, and angry to do the legwork. The thing I can’t figure out about Scott is, does he know he’s an incompetent tool or does he think he’s a genius? Say what you will about the portrayal of this storyline, but for every Scott, you have an Alma and a Fletcher—good reporters who have a sincere passion for the medium.
Plenty have complained that this is unsubtle and lacks the depth usually shown on The Wire, that Simon doesn’t have a clue because he left the Sun 13 years ago, but if you’ll notice, many of these complainers are print journalists. Every article I’ve read has come across as whiny and defensive, with the exception of this article from the Columbia Journalism Review. It does take a few unnecessary shots at Simon, but for the most part it’s a balanced account looking at both sides of Simon’s career in news.
I don’t see nearly so much of the grudge-holding, revenge-getting, clueless Simon in the series. Maybe I don’t know the intricacies of journalism the way Lucy Libby does (sample quote, made up Scott-style: “like, omg, u can txt stuff 2 ur frenz n play newz quzizes!!!!!”), but I know the intricacies of having a job in a shitty economy at a company struggling to stay afloat because its industry has been marginalized. Who hasn’t dealt with bosses like clueless Whitting and profit-obsessed Klebanow? Oh well, I guess all is well if today’s journalists are more interested in sending stories via Facebook than understanding the significance of Woodward and Bernstein.