Sunday, March 28, 2010

An All-Star from the minor leagues.

A bigger budget has meant better or at least more lavish production for as long as there has been entertainment. The general rule was that A-list pictures were better than B-list pictures, and anything in the movie houses was better than anything on TV. Now that a bigger budget means more special effects and explosions, quality drama has next to nothing to do with budget, and TV series are putting forward some of the most interesting stories available.

Even if we take the TV industry on its own, you would expect the big networks to make the best shows, but even that "common sense" view isn't backed up by the facts on the ground. HBO makes fewer shows than the big networks, and while not all of them are great, the best of them are better than anything else, in large part because HBO is not repeating the tired genres to death, which is the greatest but not only flaw with network TV right now. Showtime has tried, but the team is making the decisions there is just not as good as their counterparts at HBO.

One should expect the basic cable networks to make the worst of the shows, stuck as they are with even smaller budgets, but AMC bucks that trend by producing only two shows, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and so far making very good decisions. Breaking Bad, the story of a terminally ill chemistry teacher becoming a crystal meth producer, is now in its third season on the air. Since I don't have cable, I'm watching the second season now on Netflix, and I'm now going pony up the dough to watch the third season on iTunes as the new episodes come out.

For my money, the second season of Breaking Bad has been better than the first because the story has opened up. The first season was all about Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, the chemistry teacher and his stoner ex-student who become unlikely partners, played respectively by Brian Cranston (foreground, second from left) and Aaron Paul (far right). While they are still the center of the story, other members of Walt's family have become more proactive and less reactive and their arcs have taken interesting turns. Anna Gunn, playing Walt's pregnant wife Sklyer, has stopped just being the supportive and long-suffering partner and is starting to rebel against the secrets and lies.

The show is a cross between the action show and soap opera dramas, so it's not surprising that the character whose story has come forward the most is Walt's brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent. In the very first episode, Hank seems more like a plot device than an actual character, the jock in the family sent to torment the family nerd, and also the convenient way Walt learns how much money can be made in the drug trade. But the writers have done much more with the character as time as gone forward, and Dean Norris, the bald guy in the background of the picture who looks like he's constructed out of bowling balls, has really shone in the role now that the writers have given him more to do.

Like with many of the best TV shows right now, it isn't a vanilla product and it might not be to everyone's taste. I was hesitant to watch the show when it started, worried that it would glamorize the drug trade, but there's nothing glamorous about this show in any way. Brian Cranston's work before this has largely been in comedy, but this show is not often going for laughs. The creator Vince Gilligan worked on The X-Files and the spin-off The Lone Gunmen, and this is his first great success on his own, not unlike Matthew Weiner's first great solo success with Mad Men after being on the creative team of The Sopranos.

This is another example of the Hollywood rule of Nobody Knows Anything. A little cable outfit gives the helm of a show to a guy with no successful track record and casts a TV sitcom actor as the lead in a serious drama. You would fully expect this not to work. But then again, if you took an actor who was usually the second bill in gangster B-movies, a first time director and a script from a novel that had already been made into two adaptations that weren't any good, you wouldn't have high hopes for that project either. The not yet star in this case was Humphrey Bogart, the first time director was John Huston and the book nobody knew how to film was Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

In Hollywood, sometimes there are All-Stars that come from the minor leagues.


Abu Scooter said...

I don't entirely agree with your thesis that "quality drama has next to nothing to do with budget... ." A lot of basic-cable networks are producing TV dramas, but the ones that win critical acclaim live mostly on AMC, TNT, FX and (occasionally) USA. These networks -- let's call them television's mid-majors -- enjoy much larger budgets than most of their basic-cable brethren.

Outside those four networks, I can recall only one basic-cable drama that got nearly as much critical acclaim, and that's Battlestar Galactica.

Matty Boy said...

I define "basic cable" the way Jon Stewart defines it on The Daily Show, anything that has commercials or Public TV. This may be a semantic disagreement.