Breaking Bad: Too Good

November 30, 2011 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Reviews, Shows by pacejmiller

The unfortunate thing about American cable television is that certain shows, certain utterly brilliant shows, can get lost in the mix in foreign countries, relegated to expensive local cable channels (only 6.8% of Aussies have cable), late night slots nobody knows about, or obscure digital stations with little to no advertising and about two seasons too late.  You could always browse the DVD store, but with so many shows out there, just how do you separate them without some serious research?

I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (the fifth and final season is due next year), undoubtedly one of the best dramas I have seen in years, if not ever.  Shockingly, I had never even heard of the multiple award-winning show until a friend of mine and I were discussing how important it was to have a ‘good concept’ when trying to write a script (we used to think witty dialogue was enough — damn you Tarentino!).  And as soon as he mentioned the story of Breaking Bad – an underachieving chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth with a drop kick former student in order to provide for his family, with his DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) brother-in-law hot on his trail — I was hooked.

Bryan Cranston in season one

I’m not sure if Breaking Bad is the type of show I would have appreciated in my youth.  It is filled with tension and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but in a slow, insidious kind of way unlike the ‘pure adrenaline rush’ shows (such as say 24 and the first season of Prison Break).  It’s a drama but the unexpected black comedy keeps making me laugh out loud, while the grotesque violence and depravity keeps making me squirm.  It grabs you in with this compelling idea and pulls you deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing and the horrific impact it has on the lives of everyone around it.  Creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted to follow a character as he gradually descends from a morally upstanding person into a total badass.  And after four seasons, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist Walt is well on his way.

Walt may have gone into meth making because of the purest of intentions — but because of the constant lies and deceit, the dark (and darker) moral decisions and judgments he is forced to make, combined with a massively suppressed ego that is finally released — he finds himself regularly pushing the boundaries and crossing lines you could never have imagined him crossing at the beginning of the show (or even a season ago).  And yet, despite who he is and who he has become, deep down you still find yourself rooting for Walt, which is really at the heart of what makes Breaking Bad so freaking good.

I love this poster of the 'breaking bad' Walter

The show is brilliantly constructed from top to bottom, inside out.  The quality scripts produced by American writers on such shows never cease to amaze me.  Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always riveting.  The direction and the pacing are measured, allowing the story to unfold in a deliberate fashion.  The use of cinematography is probably the best I’ve seen in any TV show.

But of course, the show would not be where it is without the characters and the actors portraying them.   Bryan Cranston (prior to Breaking Bad, best known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, though I was stunned to discover that he was actually smug dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfled!) deservedly won three consecutive Emmys for his astonishing portrayal of protagonist Walter White (and it probably would have been four straight had the scheduling not precluded the show from this year’s Emmys).

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Cranston grabs the spotlight with his award-winning performance, which makes people forget how magnificent and equally irreplaceable Aaron Paul is as the insufferable yet lovable Jesse Pinkman.  I’m glad to see Paul, whose character was almost killed off in the first couple of episodes, be rewarded with an Emmy of his own in 2010.

This drug-making duo drives the show, but every key supporting character, from Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), is multi-dimensionally crafted.  And what about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)?  Everybody has their own motives, weaknesses and demons.  Special mention has to go out to Walt’s boss and intellectual equal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who absolutely ignited the screen in season four.  It’s not often that all the core characters from a show are this interesting, dynamic and ever-evolving.

And now we wait for the final season, season five, which is reportedly going to be 16 episodes (season one had seven episodes, and seasons two through four each had 13).  I for one am eager to see where the show heads after the way season four ended.  Will Walt keep falling deeper and deeper or will he try to turn back around (if he can)?  What will happen to his explosive love-hate relationship with Pinkman?  Will Skyler become an official part of the family business?  And will Hank finally realise the man he’s after has been right beside him all along?

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about an idea for a TV show.  It’s about a meth cooker who, after discovering that his cancer has been cured, decides to quit to become a high school chemistry teacher.  I think it’ll be a winner.

Farewell, Smallville!

May 17, 2011 in Entertainment, Misc, Reviews, Shows by pacejmiller

The Season 10 Poster

The other night I watched the series finale of Smallville, a show I stubbornly kept watching deep into its 9th and penultimate season despite steeply declining quality.  But eventually it got so bad that I was falling asleep and realising that I was wasting my time.  So I stopped watching it altogether, even though I knew I had to come back to watch the final episode — the episode where Clark Kent finally takes off to the air and becomes Superman.

Amazingly, despite having missed around 25-30 episodes, it wasn’t all that hard to pick up again.  Clark and Lois were engaged and about to get married.  Oliver Queen, aka the Green Arrow, was still around (I seriously thought Justin Hartley, the actor who played him, would have gone off to bigger and better things ages ago), as was Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack), Clark’s friend right from the first episode.  The final bad guy, I gathered, was this smokey fella called Darkseid (pronounced ‘Dark Side’) with red eyes that can control/possess people, and the ultimate crisis was a massive armageddon-inducing planet (Apokolips) on a collison course with Earth.

Those returning for the final bang included Annette O’Toole and John Schneider as Clark’s parents, even though the latter has been dead for like 5 seasons.  And of course two of my favourite characters from the show over the years, the villains, Lex and Lionel Luther (played by Michael Rosenbaum and John Glover).  The quality of the series really nosedived when these two went MIA, and it was great to finally get them back.

Curiously missing, however, were Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk — boy has she disappeared since the series…well, she was in that Chun Li Streetfighter movie…) and Clark’s old best friend Pete Ross (Sam Jones III, who has since gone on to become a porn star and is currently facing up to 20 years prison for dealing drugs).

I can still remember the first time I watched Smallville on TV, which began in October 2001.  Even though I wasn’t a Superman fanatic I still had to watch it.  After all, how could anyone not like Superman?  Tom Welling was still a fresh-faced 24 year-old playing a teenager and the show was set in high school, with your typical Superman mythology arc spliced with your ‘monster of the week’ (or Chloe Sullivan’s ‘Wall of Weird’) episodes.

The original Season 1 Poster

The series was fresh and it was exciting.  For some reason this Clark Kent was more of a bumbling fool and tool rather than the highly intelligent Man of Steel we have come to know, and Tom Welling did an excellent job of an often thankless role.  Michael Rosenbaum was the real star of the show for me as the confused, destined to be evil Lex Luthor, and with the outstanding John Glover as his father Lionel it was easy to picture his eventual transformation.

The soundtrack was also always very good, featuring a collection of popular hits and trendy up-and-comers.

But as with all long-running series (apparently Smallville is the longest-running sci-fi show in US history), there comes a time when the writers run out of ideas.  For me the show still retained a certain level of quality when Kristin Kreuk departed because Erica Durance made a wonderful substitute as Lois Lane, but unfortunately they could not make up for the losses of Rosenbaum and Glover.  Even with clever ideas such as introducing the Green Arrow and having arcs involving members of the Justice League, things quickly started to get stale.

Personally, the show hit rock bottom when they started the film rip-offs (from about the 8th season onward), taking ideas from feature films such as Saw (even with a masks and puppets, I think) and getting really lazy and predictable with the progression of each episode (always ending with Clark coming to save the day).

And when the show started to dig really really deep into the Superman mythology vault for the complicated, convoluted stories in its final two seasons, that’s when I really switched off.

That said, on the whole, Smallville is still a fantastic series with a finale that didn’t disappoint like I thought it would. It was more of a ‘personal discovery’ episode that tied up all the emotional loose ends as opposed to an action-packed one, but that was perfectly fine with me.  I was amazed to see how much everyone had aged throughout the years from the various flashback sequences.  Clark Kent really did grow up into Superman.

From day one, the show was all about its finale, and I don’t think anyone expected that to be 10 years away from the pilot episode.  When Clark donned THE suit (I believe borrowed from Brandon Routh) and rocketed up in the sky at last, as we knew he would, he finally fulfilled a 10-year prophecy.  Watching it sent tingles up and down my arms.

Farewell, Smallville!

PS: Now we await the new Zack Snyder directed Man of Steel movie (and Christopher Nolan produced) with Henry Cavill (the guy from The Tudors and who Stephenie Meyer originally wanted as Edward Cullen) as Superman, due for release in December 2012.

Henry Cavill is the new Superman

TV is affecting my crazy dreams!

October 3, 2010 in Blogging, On Writing, Shows, Study by pacejmiller

Lately all I had been dreaming about was my writing assignments.  However, the other night I had a most unusual dream that felt frighteningly real.  I dreamed that I was living in a house very similar to the one I lived in as a young child.  It had a big backyard, and somehow I was the owner of about 10 dogs, which all lived in a garage behind a 12-foot fence.  Adjacent to it was a swimming pool area, which may or may not have had a lion living in it.

It was late at night and one of my dogs leapt over the fence right in front of me.  I could tell it was desperate to tell me something.  I followed it into the garage to see all the other dogs, whimpering and in concern over one of their mates, who seemed to be badly hurt and was dying.  It was a Saturday or Sunday night, so I knew the vets wouldn’t be open, but I desperately needed to find an animal hospital (do they even have those?).

It then suddenly occurred to me that I had been neglecting these dogs for months (I don’t know why, but it felt so real), meaning I hadn’t fed them or anything, and they had just lived on their own.  A sickening thought crossed my mind as I wondered how they had survived this whole time — perhaps they were eating their own shit, or worse, each other.  And what about the poor lion?  Should I check on him?  Would he eat me?

I panicked as I flicked through the yellow pages, and it was around this time that I woke up in a cold sweat.

Isn’t it funny how dreams that seem so real when you’re in them instantly become silly when you wake up?  I was trying to figure out what it all meant when I suddenly realised where the dream had come from.  A few nights ago, I stumbled across an episode of Top Gear (for the first time), where these guys were riding through a safari with these little battery-powered cars.  I remember thinking how terrifying it was as these massive lions ran alongside them and kept bumping into their extremely lightweight vehicles, threatening to tip them over.

And on the night of the dream, for some reason I watched this show called Bondi Vet (also for the first time), which featured this poor dog that was hit by a car and a snake in a suburban swimming pool.

Threre, dream explained.  Injured dog, swimming pool and lion.  I need to watch happier shows.

Junior Masterchef Freaking Me Out!

September 26, 2010 in Entertainment, Food, Shows by pacejmiller

Masterchef is the juggernaught of Australian television at the moment.

I was living in the UK when it rose to prominence and became the must-see TV it is today.  When I came back, everyone was talking about it.  I even watched a few episodes myself.  It was pretty good — the format was fun and intense, the food was sensational, and if you like to cook, educational too.  It was like a serious blend of Iron Chef and Australian Idol.  The only problem was that it made me insanely hungry.

Anyway, Masterchef Australia has taken things to the next level by introducing ‘Junior Masterchef’, which is essentially the same thing except with child contestants.  From what I can gather they’re mostly between the 8 and 12 years old.

I initially thought the whole thing was a joke.  It was an explosion or severed finger away from worldwide condemnation and multi-million dollar law suits.  Yes, the parents are supervising, and yes, safety measures are in place, but seriously, kids cooking?  What’s next?  Lord of the Flies Live?  (Actually, that would be a good show).

So I watched my first episode last night.  At the start, I was very cynical because it felt so serious.  The judges spoke in their usual exaggerated fashion and the kids stood stern faced with hands behind their backs.  I was expecting to see kids running around, picking their noses and giving each other Chinese burns, but they were all so bizarrely mature and professional about the whole thing.

And when they started their cooking tasks, I was blown away.  What’s going on with kids these days?  They can actually cook, and cook extraordinarily well.  They know what they’re doing.  They know all the terms and the lingo.  The stuff they make look pretty and I assume, given the judges’ responses, tastes not too shabby either.  They put me to shame.

I first learned how to make jelly at age 8.  Mix packet with water and freeze.  And I didn’t do that particularly well either.  I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t let me use the stove until I was much older than that.  The question is, should kids be doing this sort of stuff?  It feels so weird to me that kids are so knowledgeable and capable in the kitchen.  And to put them on national TV under the spotlight, with all the stress and pressure that comes with it.  But on the other hand, if they enjoy it and it’s safe, then why not?  They could be getting up to much worse things nowadays, and having a useful hobby is not a bad thing, especially if they eventually want to head in that direction as a profession.

Whatever.  It still freaked me out.

An Afternoon at the Great Moscow Circus!

September 19, 2010 in Shows by pacejmiller

A few weeks ago I went to see the Great Moscow Circus, which is in the middle of its ‘regional’ Australia tour, even though this particular show was pretty close to the city.

I haven’t always been a fan of the circus — yes, I’ll admit, ever since I watched Stephen King’s It as a kid I’ve been terrified of clowns (shudder).

Anyway, it was time to put those fears aside, because the Moscow Circus doesn’t come around very often — maybe once every 2 or 3 years, if you’re lucky.  It’s a travelling circus comprising some of the most amazing acts from around the world, and although it’s not as glamorous or well-funded as say the artistic Cirque Du Soleil, it’s certainly no less impressive.

We went to see an afternoon session (they have 3 sessions on Saturdays, 2 on Sundays, and 1 or 2 almost every other day of the week — life is not easy as a travelling performer), which was playing at an empty sports ground.  The show was inside a massive tent that fits up to 1000 people, and has a relatively tiny performing stage in the middle.

Most of those in attendance were parents and grandparents with young children.  It had a very carnival-like atmosphere, which I love, and I think it’s a fantastic show to take kids, especially in this day and age where almost everything is simulated.

Three other positives it has over Cirque Du Soleil — (1) the prices are significantly cheaper (you can purchase tickets at the door for just $25 for adults and $16 for children, and the most expensive ringside tickets are only $60; (2) you get to sit real close to the action (one thing that irked me about Cirque Du Soleil was how far the stage was from everyone), and even if you sit in the back row you can still get a wonderful view; and (3) the performers are not as precious — by that I mean they get up close and personal with the audience.  Kids are screaming and laughing and moving around all the time, but like true professionals, they don’t get distracted.  And get this — one performer I saw that afternoon did the juggling, the magic show and the stunning final act, AND he was selling drinks during the intermission.  Talk about multi-talented!

One of the heart-stopping acts (Source: ntnews.com.au)

As for the show itself, I was very impressed with some of the things they did, which was a combination of traditional circus acts (like juggling, magic and body contorting) and stuff you’ve probably never seen before (no spoilers, but it was cra-zy).  And yes, there were a few clowns that came out between acts to keep the crowd interested and stir up the kids.  And yes, they still scare the crap out of me!

Roughly 2 hours later, the show came to a close and all the parents and kids left the tent with wide grins across their faces.  I had forgotten just how fun the circus is, especially when you’re a kid.

To find out more, check the Moscow Circus website.  Apparently more Sydney shows are to be announced, and after that they will travel to regional areas in South Australia and Victoria.

PS: There was a slight controversy last month with one of the acts, which involved goldfish.  That act has now been cancelled.

Pennywise from Stephen King's IT

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