Tuesday, November 28, 2017

BREAKING BAD 101 :: Alan Sepinwall

A version of this review previously ran in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

A television drama with a ludicrous premise (a dying chemistry teacher cooks and sells methamphetamine to build a nest egg for his family), Breaking Bad was rejected by major networks and shuffled off to cable. From humble beginnings, it became not only a critical darling but a top-rated, multi-Emmy-winning water cooler sensation. In Breaking Bad 101, longtime television critic Alan Sepinwall (The Revolution Was Televised) dissects a show so successful at captivating an audience that Sepinwall watched "the greatest hour of dramatic television ever made" (Ozymandias, S5, E14) from a hospital bed after nearly dying from a burst appendix:

By that point in the series, though, the only thing that would have prevented me from covering 'Ozymandias' (and the two concluding episodes that followed) live would have been something worse than appendicitis. It wasn't just professional dedication making me do it, but a kind of fever equal to the one that, because the appendix burst before doctors removed it, kept me hospitalized for almost two weeks.

From its focus on the "in-between moments" to its use of cinematography to show rather than tell, Breaking Bad is a model of successful storytelling. Many plots would crumble from the fragile framework upon which creator Vince Gilligan and his crew built their masterpiece, but this one grew to epic proportions on the strength of its foundation--the writing (and some admittedly happy accidents). Sepinwall reveals how the writing held millions of viewers in suspense while a year of real-time story was spread over several often glacially-paced seasons of television in a masterful display of craftsmanship. This is even more staggering when you learn how often the writers were "winging it." Says Gilligan:

We actively try to paint ourselves into corners at the end of episodes--at the end of seasons, at the end of scenes, sometimes--and then we try to extricate ourselves from those corners.
The book includes updated show recaps supplemented with insightful details about all 62 episodes, interspersed with sidebars of insider facts and backstories, commentary from the actors and creators, and brilliant black-and-white comic-style artwork that exemplifies the show's dark humor. Breaking Bad 101 is incredibly fun, but truly shines when Sepinwall explores the elements that elevated an impractical story to awe-inspiring success.

STREET SENSE: An episode-by-episode companion to arguably the greatest television drama of all time, with content to satisfy artists, casual fans and series aficionados. If you haven't watched yet, doing so along with reading this book would be a great way to dive in. If you have watched, five'll get you ten this will make you want to start all over again.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: This is a toughie, both because so much of the writing is spoilerish if you haven't watched the series and because great writing about great writing is so infinitely quotable. There's the bit about how Sepinwall's fixation and fever over Breaking Bad is all the more amazing because at first he wasn't even sure he would like the show, which is exactly how I felt on both ends. There's a great piece on growth, decay and transformation. I almost took from the fantastic Foreword by Damon Lindelof, who praises Sepinwall's craft and soul despite Sepinwall's oft-times less than positive reviews of Lindelof's own show, Lost. In the end, this heavily redacted bit won out, mostly because it perfectly describes the breath-holding experience of watching Breaking Bad, which feels both slower and faster than real time, turning the process into something otherworldly:

Nearly twenty minutes of screen time pass from the moment [redacted] to the closing credits.  More than fifteen minutes pass from the moment Walt arrives at [redacted] to the closing credits, and more than ten minutes pass from the moment we return from the final act break and Walt is prepared to [redacted]. I know this only because I went back, multiple viewings later, to clock it all. In the moment, the action seemed to be simultaneously taking place in an instant and over an eternity. A parade could have gone by my window and I wouldn't have noticed. I'm sure I inhaled and exhaled, if only because I'm alive right now writing these words that you're reading, but I'll be damned if I was aware of any contracting or expanding of my lungs as [redacted] all converged on the spot where [redacted]--the same spot where the arrival of [redacted] made it clear to both Walt and us that nothing on Breaking Bad would ever go as expected. 

No comments:

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP