Mad Men

Don DraperUnlike many pilots, where we dive headlong into action, meeting a spate of characters before the opening credits, Mad Men‘s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” asks us to sit down and get to know its main character, Don Draper. We spend the pilot’s first six minutes with Don (Jon Hamm), not in the heat of battle on Madison Avenue, but in a quiet moment, alone in a bar. He scribbles thoughtfully on a napkin, mulling an idea. He launches an impromptu focus group of one with a waiter. He wants to know what motivates this guy–the average working man–to smoke the brand of cigarettes he smokes. (This brief encounter also gives us taste of 1960s culture vis-a-vis race, but more on that later.) Continue reading

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Will It Fly?

Source CodeWhen I first heard that the movie Source Code, which I haven’t seen but which looks pretty cool, is being developed for TV, my instinctive first question was, “What network?” (The answer is CBS.) Because, with sci-fi and genre TV, the network is everything. It will largely determine how the material will be handled and whether it will succeed. Continue reading

Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad pilotBreaking Bad is gearing up for Season 4 this Sunday, which is sort of a spoiler in and of itself if you’ve never seen the show, but perhaps, like me, you are behind the curve. If so, here’s a look at where it started.

This pilot opens in media res–an intense scene where the hero is in deep s**t–before flashing back to tell us how he got here. It’s a technique used in everything from The Odyssey to Ratatouille. I must say, though, Breaking Bad threw me for a loop. Our hero, Walter’s (Bryan Cranston) life is such a mess when we open, I thought we were going to take a whole season to get there. It only takes one episode.

As the show opens, a pair of pants fly through the air just as an RV careens into view. It is driven by a pants-less man in a gas mask while another man is passed out or dead in the passenger seat and two others roll around the floor. The driver loses control and runs off the road, then grabs a video camera to record what we expect may be his final words.

No-pants is Walter Hartwell White of Albequerque, NM. He tells his family he loves them and, he says, despite what they are about to learn about him, “I only had you in my heart.” He leaves his wallet and the camera on the ground and steps into the dusty road aiming the gun at whatever is headed his way.

We then flash back three weeks, into “a day in the life” mode. It’s Walter’s 50th birthday and he shares a simple, low-cholesterol breakfast with his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) Other than the fact that Skyler is a bit of a nag and teenage Walter Jr. is a bit of a smartass, they seem like a pretty loving middle-class family.

The next succession of scenes gives us a taste for how mundane Walter’s life is, but it’s not tragic. The writers could have made Walter into a Lester Burnham (American Beauty), and there are parallels, but Walter’s even more middle-of-the-road, if that’s possible. And, we have to like him to make this show work. Walter teaches a high school chemistry class, giving a presentation that you can see he thinks is snazzy and hip, which his students receive as if Ben Stein is teaching.

Next, Walter moves on to his night job at a car wash, where his boss bullies him into staying late–after Skyler has specifically asked that Walter not let this happen. He arrives home late to find a surprise birthday party in progress. Here we meet his brother-in-law, a loud-mouth cop who just made a big meth bust.  Walter’s curiosity about the bust, specifically the amount of money involved, is the first spark we see in him that he just might hold aspirations for something else.

As if to top off–or put into perspective–his sad existence, Walter soon learns that he has inoperable lung cancer. But for a guy who’s just gotten really shitty news, his luck seems to be changing. A series of serendipitous events including bumping into one of his former students while on a ride-along with his brother-in-law, leads him on a fast spiral into making crystal meth. He blackmails the former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), into help him, snags some lab equipment from the school and buys an RV, and there’s no looking back.

While Jesse is an arrogant, punkass kid who prides himself on the artistry of his “cooking,” Walter is his antithesis. Walter’s methods are meticulous and thorough. He’s the kind of guy who, if he’s going to commit crime, he’s going to do it the best he can. And that’s why we like him. He may be “breaking bad,” but he’s got fierce integrity and devotion to his family. A scene where he stands up to some bullies picking on his son in a store is inspired. It gives us a sense that being faced with death is giving Walter a new-found confidence. Walter turns out to be a genius at making meth, which leads him and Jesse to run afoul of some drug dealers, eventually leading to the chase scene we see at the beginning. But Walter doesn’t die. Or get arrested. Or suffer any consequences at all. It’s as if a condemned man is suddenly leading a charmed life; it’s a fascinating premise to kick off a highly original show.

Check out this post on how AMC has become a force to be reckoned with where TV drama is concerned.

The Walking Dead (in retrospect)

I always say that pilot can only be truly appreciated in retrospect. You can’t know how good it is until you see how the whole season—sometimes the whole series—plays out. So I’ve waited until now to blog about The Walking Dead.

This show, which had a 6-episode first season on AMC, has been reviewed and analyzed extensively, for the most part favorably (in places like these.) So I won’t bother raving about how entertaining, exciting and original it is. Though it is all of those things.

The thing to understand about this show is, it’s not a zombie show. It’s a suspenseful, end-of-the-world drama that just happens to have zombies. The pilot lets us know that, giving us rich character introductions and a bleak, ominous landscape.

The opening scene lets us know something isn’t right. A police officer, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), parks his squad car and makes his way through an intersection littered with overturned vehicles. Beyond that he finds an abandoned camp site where bodies rot in cars. Rick appears completely calm, as though he is finding only what he expected. And, while the sight of him putting a bullet in the forehead of a little girl with a teddy bear and half a face packs a punch to the audience, it doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary for Rick.

In hindsight this opening scene feels odd. Where are we? When are we? When Rick first leaves the hospital, trying desperately to figure out what happened to the world during his coma, he is understandably freaked out. He doesn’t know the ways of the new frontier until at least episode 2. Suddenly it’s not clear when in the timeline of the show this scene takes place; maybe we haven’t seen it yet? Why did the writers choose this point of attack? Just to shock us with Cindy Lou Who getting her head blown off? Rick shows much more emotion when, mid-way through the pilot, he shoots the half-woman crawling across the lawn.

A flashback is used to set up the relationship between Rick and his partner, Shane (John Bernthal). This relationship is crucial to the story arc, and its position in the script suggests that. The writers don’t miss a chance to also mention Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), the woman who will represent the point in their love triangle. In the chase of a suspect, Rick and Shane are clearly the competent ones. More importantly, they’re both basically good guys. They have each other’s backs, and together they defend the public good. These characteristics will leave us torn as the story unfolds, unable to paint Shane as a hero or villain. This will prove especially true in the opening scene of episode 6, in a flashback to when the hospital was overrun with zombies. The relationship between the men is also a source of frustrating dramatic irony later in the pilot, when Rick radios through to the campsite having no idea Shane is there.

We don’t get to know any of the other characters in the campsite at this stage. We see just enough to see that a group of survivors is making the best of it on the outskirts of town.

The pilot spends a good chunk of its 66 minutes having us get to know the character Morgan (Lennie James); he has a big dramatic introduction and the possibility of a reunion with Rick for later on. There’s no payoff through, at least this season. Morgan, although a rich character, winds up being no more than a device for explaining the world to the viewing audience. (I, for one, want to know if he ever shoots his wife).

One of the questions running through this episode—for viewers, not the characters—was “how far will they go?” This is a horror show on basic cable. The opening with the little girl gives a pretty strong hint, but we wonder how gross, how shocking, how scary AMC will be. The show does not disappoint in this respect.  The pilot leaves us with a bizarre, gag-worthy gut feast that didn’t let us forget about the show until the following Sunday.

Rubicon

Rubicon, a new show on AMC has a cool title (a metaphor for a point of no return) and a cool tag line: “Not every conspiracy is a theory.” So I decided to see what they mean by that.

Things start off simply. A quote appears: “An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.” We’re asked to guess who said it, Ted Kacyzinski or Woodrow Wilson. Naturally the answer is the less obvious, and by extension, the more eerie, Wilson.

Next we see some kids running happily through the show. They’re shot from above, lending a starkness that says their happiness will be short-lived. A woman, we assume their mother (Miranda Richardson), joins in their game, while inside the stately manse, a man (their father? grandfather?) reads his morning newspaper. A four-leaf clover is pressed into the paper, giving him pause. He proceeds upstairs and blows his brains out.

The opening credits speak to anyone who is a fan of Dan Brown and the like. Numbers, symbols, words, and images are circled or connected, hinting at sinister hidden messages all around us. One of the images is of a freeway off/on-ramp “clover,” and immediately in the next scene people are sorting out a crossword clue about a four-leaf clover. So we’ve got a theme that is none too subtle.

Our protagonist is Will Travers (James Badge Dale), a moody academic. He is apathetic when a female co-worker reminds him it’s his birthday and offers to buy lunch. Will attends a staff meeting, which serves as an introduction to the other characters. Tanya, the most junior staff member, is chastised by Grant for forgetting the doughnuts. Grant is a jerk. Miles is a bearded version of Will. David, their boss (Peter Gerety), looks the part of esteemed university professor, complete with elbow patches. He gives each member of the team a cryptic assignment, starting with observing missile silos. It’s not entirely clear what this workplace is, or what the characters do. But that’s okay, because the real story seems to be Will’s obsession with a particular set of crossword puzzles.

Will brings the puzzles to David, for the elder gentleman’s expertise. There seems to be a pattern in the puzzles hinting at a mysterious fourth branch of government, the branches being symbolized by—you guessed it—clover leaves. It seems like a huge stretch to the viewer, but we have to buy that these guys are smart enough to see meaning where we laypeople would not. David gives him the brush off, only to pounce on the puzzles himself once Will is out the door. He in turn shows them to his boss, Kale (Arliss Howard).

A big reveal comes at lunchtime when Tanya asks Miles why Will walks around looking like his cat died. Miles replies, sanctimoniously, “Try wife and child. Try 9-11.” It’s a little ham-handed but adds an important layer to Will’s character. Another detail, this one handled with welcome subtlety is the revelation that David is Will’s father-in-law. “They’re gone,” he says. “It’s just something both of us have to accept.”

[SPOILER ALERT] David, we find is carrying the burden of knowing whatever Big Event is about to happen that will set off the storyline for the series. He warns Will to leave town, and then is killed in a train accident. Will, like any good conspiracy theorist, doesn’t accept that it was an accident. He reluctantly takes David’s job when it is rather insistently offered.

He enlists the help of a colleague, introducing us to another key character, Ed. Ed has that whole wise old hermit thing going on, so we figure he’s going to know some things.

So will the show be about solving David’s murder? Or about the crossword puzzle plot? Or both? And what of the man who killed himself in the opening? The pilot, though it has an arc, doesn’t really have an ending; and that’s a good thing. We’re in for some mellow-drama, to be sure, but it’s got the necessary hook.