Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What My Friend Steve Is Missing

Missing, that is, by not watching Breaking Bad on AMC-TV.  Steve doesn’t watch a lot of TV.  In fact, he says the last time he watched TV at home was prior to the turn of the century.  So earlier this week, when he saw me change my Facebook “cover photo” to the image below,

he wondered what it meant, and then created and published his own version of spelling his name out in elements from the periodic table.

Infinitely more creative than the Breaking Bad Name Lab.

Steve is the smartest person I know, and I’m lucky to know a lot of smart people.  We met years, decades ago in Oshkosh, when he strolled into my office at the old WMKC-FM, fresh out of radio school at KIIS-FM in Los Angeles.  He inquired, in his beautifully-modulated bass/baritone voice, if there might be any work to be had.

Hell yes.

We became friends as quickly as we became colleagues; shortly after he decamped to the competition across town, I was thrown under the bus at WMKC and wound up joining Steve and the crew at WOSH/WYTL. There, I had the pleasure of working with, and eventually managing some of the greatest on-air talent ever assembled in the Fox Valley radio market. Our stations absolutely dominated the ratings and I made many good friends, with whom I still interact with today.

Steve became a computer/IT whiz (demonstrating once again that there is abundant life after radio) and has helped me with my computer/tech problems for years.  See that “Rifles At Dawn” graphic at the top of this blog?  That’s Steve’s creation.  He also minds all the tech aspects of my online life.

But, as usual, I digress.

Steve would like Breaking Bad.  I can understand how he “fell away” from television; simply put, there’s a lot of mindless crap out there. But since Steve last entertained himself with the tube, circa 1999, there’s been a huge change.  While the traditional broadcast networks are awash in smarmy reality shows, un-funny sitcoms thoroughly dedicated to the lowest common denominator, and dramas which are either cloyingly emotional or gratuitously violent, the “good stuff” has migrated to the cable channels.

HBO wins bucket-loads of awards every year for its first-rate programming.  AMC has had hit after hit with shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Shows like Homeland Security and Dexter on ShowTime regularly pull in six million viewers.  And, to be quite blunt, these shows aren’t the kind of shows stupid people like.  They force you to think.  They force you to pay attention.  The writing is stellar, the characters are multi-dimensional, the acting is of the highest caliber, and the cinematography is often breathtaking.

Over the past six or seven years, much of the best writing and acting talent has held forth on what used to be “the dark side” of the broadcast entertainment industry: cable TV.  And now, an entirely new venue of first-rate entertainment is being developed by Netflix, and has even engendered a new term: binge-viewing. My wife and I binge-viewed the 13 hour-long episodes of House of Cards on streaming NetFlix, watching the entire series in less than a week. We did the same with the new Netflix series, Orange is the New Black.  This is a whole new extremely consumer-friendly way of offering first-rate entertainment: all the episodes are available whenever you want them.  If you want to devote a day to watching all 13 episodes, not waiting for a new one to come out every week, Netflix gives it to you.

The 8 bucks a month we spend to have streaming Netflix through our Blu-Ray player is the #1 entertainment value at the Morrissey Compound.

And here’s another thing: many of these new shows, like House of Cards, are so well-received that they beg for another season, so Netflix will do another season.  But, like Breaking Bad, the series will come to an end.  It won’t go on forever, like ER, Gray’s Anatomy, and scores of other broadcast network TV shows that started with huge promise but then “jumped the shark” (Happy Days) and devolved into maudlin mediocrity. 

There’s an old saw that says when you envision a beginning, envision an end – and that’s one of the things that makes these new cable-only or Netflix-only shows so good: the writers can focus on developing a plot that comes to a conclusion, and they don’t have to invent artificial devices just to keep the show alive for another 13 weeks/episodes.  Hence, each episode is focused, moves the plot forward to a definite conclusion.  Gee, whoda thunk the formula “beginning, middle, end” would ever work???

So, Steve, since this post is for you, why would you like Breaking Bad?  Because it’s a smart show about a smart guy.  Don’t worry, no spoilers here.  Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher, brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston, who missed his chance at being a billionaire by selling out his share of what became a huge software company, for five thousand bucks.  When White discovers he has lung cancer, he “breaks bad” as the young folks say, and becomes a meth cook, to ensure that his family will survive financially after he's gone. Not just any meth cook, but the best by-God meth cook in the world.  The chemistry alone, Steve, would fascinate you.  There have been monographs written about Walter White’s now famous P2P meth cook.  Here’s a link to one of the many analyses of Walt’s meth cook which I think you’ll enjoy, Steve.

Through the course of six seasons, White’s character evolves (devolves?) from a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to the most ruthless, murdering, conniving, savvy, successful drug dealer imaginable.  And he does it right in front of his brother-in-law, an FBI/DEA agent.  And right now, we’re in the final confrontation between Walt and Hank (the brother-in-law).  The trip to this point, this breaking point, if you will, has been a breathless ride from Walt’s beginnings as a meth cook with a unique recipe operating a small-time lab in a big-ass RV, through his evolution to running the most sophisticated meth lab ever created (and the show spares few details, Steve), to his ascendancy as the premiere drug lord of all the southwestern US and most of northern Mexico.

That’s why the name lab feature of Breaking Bad’s online presence is so popular: chemistry is central to the development of the show.

And you’ll love this, Steve: at one point, when Walt is beginning to move from street-level supplier to regional meth wholesaler, one of the drug overlords he’s about to dispatch asks him his name, and he replies “Heisenberg”.  See what I mean about this being a smart show for smart people?

So, my friend, with only a few episodes left, Breaking Bad is on an express elevator to hell, and characters are falling left and right.  And in a few short weeks, this show will be over. Should you ever decide to watch TV again, Steve, may I humbly recommend that you begin with Breaking Bad?


  1. Again my friend, you hit the nail on the head.

  2. Colonel,

    "Some of my best friends talk to chemists," as Leon Lederman said.

    I have a similar appreciation for good TV; and you're right: I didn't see much of it in '99 when we cancelled our cable subscription. The thing that got me most was that I had to be sitting in front of that infernal box at such-and-such a time in order not to miss it.

    And, of course, the ads. And, of course, if you missed a bit of dialog that dealt with the whole point of the show, you couldn't rewind. The usual TV annoyances.

    But as a kid, oh, man! "Star Trek" was a revelation. And all of us kids would rush up to watch TV after dinner each night (after doing the dishes, of course). We even enjoyed the flops like "Mr. Terrific" and "Captain Nice". To this day I can tune out absolutely everything if I start watching something on TV.

    Unlike my roommate, Rick Hansen, in the WMKC days. He'd get home from work, flip on the TV on his way to the kitchen, grab a box of treats (Hostess Ho-Hos, if I remember correctly), plop down in his armchair, turn on the police scanner, open the TV guide, and call somebody on the phone. Multi-tasking while watching TV was as easy as breathing for him. Not me.

    I know that it's different now. But I'm content to keep my memories of the 2nd to last TV I owned in '93 when "The X-Files" ran and "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." came on just before. It was a set I'd been given by somebody. It took 15 minutes for it to warm up enough for a picture to be visible...complete with TV static flashing on and off during the last few minutes of the warm-up cycle. I told my future step-sons that they were alien signals from outer space interfering with my television reception.

    I used to tape shows on that TV, and I got pretty good at pausing and re-starting the tape to skip all the verdammt ads. I watched 5 hours of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" on that TV with one of my sisters when that show went off the air.

    I don't miss TV. We were only watching "The X-Files", "Pinky and the Brain", and "The Animaniacs" when we decided to cancel the subscription to cable. In the interim I've satisified my occasional TV cravings with visits to the library's DVD collection, and then Netflix for a while.

    But I'll make this promise: I'll make use of my oldest step-son's Netflix subscription and begin watching "Breaking Bad" on the strength of your recommendation.

    The Town Crank

    1. You'll enjoy it, Steve. And, I'm sure you're aware of the magical device called DVR - digital video recorder - which is a low-cost option built right into the satellite or cable receiver. Since the proliferation of the VCR, the networks have been trying to get us to watch things only on THEIR schedule by counter-programming popular shows (same time slot, different net). Most VCR's could only record one thing at a time. But now, DVR's are available for very little cost that can record 2, 3, or 4 TV shows simultaneously. Sunday nights Toni and I record most of our weekly viewing...simply by setting the DVR. And most DVR's have a "skip" feature, with a convenient button - each time you press it, you skip 30 seconds; so, to skip past a 3-minute stop-set, you just press the button six times, and bam! You're back into programming with no annoying ads.

      If indeed you do watch Br Ba via Netflix, start right at the beginning. I think you'll enjoy it; it's really some of the best "commercial" TV available.