Friday, May 18, 2012

Deconstructing Bad

I am addicted to Breaking Bad.  I came to the party late, I only started watching it over the last few months, but I have made up for lost time very quickly.  I have just wrapped up the third season and am about to embark on season four.  Everything about the show is amazing; the cast, the writing, the cinematography, the use of Bob Odenkirk; it's quickly moved up into my list of all-time Top Ten television shows.  It may have even pushed Lost off the list.  Blasphemy, I know, but the show is just that damn good.  For those not familiar, it stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a middle-aged high school science teacher who learns he is dying of cancer.  In order to provide for his wife and handicapped son before his impending demise, Walt starts secretly cooking and selling meth with one of his former students, a slacker pothead named Jesse Pinkman played by Aaron Paul.  Things go good for about five minutes.  And then shit starts hitting the fan.  Constantly.  What transpires over the course of the show is something I won't dare spoil here, suffice it to say that it is well worth the time to find out.  Watching the show is like getting a master class on filmmaking.  The episodes are compelling, exciting, funny, violent, and all manner of surprising.  The relationships between the characters and how they weave the story together is something I find huge inspiration in.  It is a show I have tried to not only enjoy as a viewer, but also study as a filmmaker.  There is one scene in particular that I remember watching and thinking, "Wow, this show is working on a different level than most."  It's not a huge moment in the overall arc of the show, but it's a perfect example of the kind technical artistry on display on both sides of the camera.  It's a moment involving Hank, Walter's brother-in-law (played by Dean Norris) who just happens to be a D.E.A. agent.  I'll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but the scene is in the second season of the show, when Hank is trying to track down a meth dealer known on the street as "Heisenberg."  Heisenberg's meth is something of a legend in the meth world, far purer and stronger than the normal stuff cooked in somebody's bathroom.  The search for Heisenberg has become Hank's obsession, one that has put a huge strain on his home and work life.  What Hank doesn't know is that the dealer he is looking for is Walt, who is doing anything and everything he can to keep Hank from learning the truth.  In the episode, Hank has finally tracked Heisenberg down to the old RV he produces his meth in, sort of like a mobile drug lab.  Thinking he has Heisenberg cornered, Hank is  about to move in.  Suddenly gets a call on his cell phone, informing him his wife has been in an accident and is in intensive care.  Suddenly, everything in Hank's world changes.  The color in the picture drains away, the contrast increases, the sound becomes muffled and dark.  It cuts to a frantic Hank, speeding away in his car as fast as he can drive, arriving at the hospital.  He's panicked as he races down the hospital hallways, desperate to find his wife.  A nurse finally calms him down and tells him they don't know what he is talking about, there haven't been any accidents today.  Hank stops.  The realization washes over his face.  Heisenberg faked the call from the hospital.  It was a trick to get rid of Hank so Heisenberg could escape.  The anger on Hank's face sells the moment perfectly, but here is where the technical wizardry at work really started to catch my eye.  The sound slowly comes back, and the color begins to return to normal.  But ever-so-subtlely the color starts to increase.  The reds start to take over a bit, combining with the light reflecting off Hank's sweating face, to turn his face red.  It seemed like Hank's blood was boiling over, like you could almost see steam rising off his face.  It was subtle, but it was beautiful.  I played the scene back a couple of times and really started to deconstruct it, paying close attention to the editing, the lighting, the framing, and all the other elements, trying to learn the magicians' tricks.  But these are tricks I don't mind having spoiled for me.  I have been very fortunate in the past to have seen up-close how a lot of movies and TV shows are made, but sometimes when you are working on a set, you get so caught up in the rush to get things done on-time and under budget, you can lose the artistry of it.  There's so many different moving parts that it's not always possible to keep them moving properly.  I have worked on many projects, large and small, where when I watched the final product, it was a letdown.  Just one wrong moving part and it can ruin the entire thing.  Pick the wrong actor, the wrong location, the wrong costume, or even the wrong caterer, and you can doom a project to failure.  Believe me.  I worked on this, I know what I'm talking about.  But, on those rare occasions when they do get it right, when you find a film or TV show where all the moving parts are working in unison, it gives me hope that it's not impossible.  That if you keep your eye on the details, and surround yourself with other talented artists who can keep an eye on them too, something genuinely moving and worthwhile can be created.  Of course, I say this now.  I said the same thing about Lost at the end of it's third season and look what happened to that one (A light in a cave?  Really, Lindelof?  A LIGHT IN A FRAKING CAVE?  REALLY?????  Sigh.  Sorry, I'm still a little bitter).  Anyhow, I hope Breaking Bad keeps up the amazing work on both sides of the camera and avoids the pitfalls that have sometimes befallen past shows when they try to land the plane (coughLostcough).  But for now, I am glued to the screen for the rest of the ride Breaking Bad is taking me on.  I'll also be taking lots of notes along the way.  And if my film plans don't work out, the show will probably have taught me how to make meth by then, so I've got that to fall back on.  Who says TV isn't educational?

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