14 A NO SLIP-UP TYPE DEAL
Sometimes intentions play a part. In the TV and movie business, success is nowhere near as frequent as failure. Not all artistic ambition is free of cynicism. Producers and people who have to pay for the films to be made will understand both the strength of the lowest common denominator and the appeal of the familiar. Showrunner Vince Gilligan made Breaking Bad to please an audience but he expected them to like the same movies and TV programmes as him. Season five may suffer from meth maker Walt becoming too dark a character but throughout the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad the capability of the TV audience is never underestimated by the writers. If Vince Gilligan knows how people respond to teasers, comedy, cliff-hangers and surprises, he also trusts the fans will have patience and curiosity. This assumption or attitude by Gilligan was important to the success of Breaking Bad but it did not stand alone. There are plenty of reasons why Breaking Bad was a no slip-up type deal.
American TV is more than a business. It is an industry. Not all of its products will be inspired but those who work in it will live and breathe creativity. Skills are honed and sharpened. Writers do not need to work on a classic programme to develop their skills. Trying to make a piece of pap somehow pass muster will be just as demanding for a writer as working on the fresh and original. Many TV script writers have experience of operating in both comedy and drama. Not all will be adept in both formats but that experience plus the repetitive discipline of a long working week refines technique.
American TV writers may be obliged to waste too much of their lives on melodrama and violent soap operas but they understand good dialogue. They have to learn the basic tricks. These include having a character say nothing and stare into space meaningfully when the only alternative is cliché. At some point in a TV episode the plot or what will happen next has to be explained to viewers. Providing something else for the attention of the audience while this is happening is essential. The writers of Breaking Bad understood these tricks or skills and a lot more. And when there was a need for an emotional and heated argument they also had the know-how and actors to attempt overlapping dialogue. If this does not appear too difficult then watch some recent British dramas and try to endure the lumpen phrases. The lauded attempts of Jed Mercurio exist as examples of how not to do it. Happy Valley by gifted Sally Wainwright was the exception.
But, whatever the drafting skills, only interesting characters utter convincing dialogue, and only capable actors can make those characters believable. Breaking Bad had both. I knew a schoolteacher that was convicted for selling drugs. He never made the big time like Walt but he went a step further. He sold drugs to the pupils in his class. His alternative career was a surprise to everyone but, like Walt, by then he had problems. The notion of a chemistry teacher making meth is both wild and believable. Unfortunately him having a brother-in-law in the DEA does stretch credibility. But as Chekov understood, nothing helps character development in a drama as much as having them all in the same family.
Breaking Bad has inspired debate about whether Walt really is a bad guy and as to who are the heroes or villains. The truth is that there are no heroes. Breaking Bad has rounded characters that have strengths and weaknesses. In their lives they have good or bad moments. Skyler is not an evil woman or even a bad wife to Walter. But with a glass of the hard stuff in her hand and after a tiring day she was willing to recommend the murder of Jesse. This weaker moment by Skyler was almost endearing.
Not all the characters created by the scriptwriting team of Breaking Bad are convincing but even the ones that raise doubts manage to entertain. Thanks to actor Jonathan Banks, the man of few words Mike is popular with viewers, even if his character evokes over-familiar Western heroes. Lavell Crawford plays Huell Babineaux, sidekick to lawyer Saul Goodman. Lavell may make a living as a stand-up comic but the notion that the slow moving and slow thinking Huell is even capable of earning a salary is dubious. Gilligan and his casting director are bright. Using stand-up comics for certain characters encourages the audience to indulge the wilder creations. Saul Goodman is a tenth rate lawyer with a first class brain. This contradiction is never resolved within Breaking Bad but actor and comedian Bob Odenkirk adds to the fun. We indulge the nonsense. The series Better Caul Saul attempts to explain how someone with the expertise of Goodman is not just a failure but crass. Its creation may have been an act of remorse by the writers.
Complex characters make demands on actors, and if mistakes were made in casting Breaking Bad, most of us will have missed them. What helps is the dedication of Gilligan and his casting director to only picking actors that will define the characters intended by the writers. There appear to have been no commercial considerations in the selection process. The emphasis is on personality rather than charisma. If Breaking Bad has a hero it is Hank. Dean Norris who plays Hank is not too tall, has a huge beer gut, is bald and, well, not handsome. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul won awards for a reason. They own their roles. Actors are noted for being narcissistic but from the moment Bryan Cranson appears in his white underpants it is clear that whatever the actors will take from working on Breaking Bad it will not be physical flattery. Aaron Paul the actor that plays Jesse has been described as ‘a pretty boy’ but not because of what happens in the make-up department. The stills from Breaking Bad that are taken from the final episode confirm the intensity of the performance of Aaron Paul.
Moments before Walt appears in his underpants there is the famous opening shot where a pair of trousers fly into the air. The shot is confident, different and seductive. Vince Gilligan is blessed with the ability to have original ideas and concepts but also to add satisfying details. In that first episode most of us are surprised to see Walt make a confession. We are used to flashbacks but not from a man in his underpants filming himself on his mobile phone. Bold concepts reinforced by surprising ideas that themselves are rooted in other concepts means hard work for writers. This is why the democratic contribution from the nine person writing team was important. Solid concepts and imaginative supportive detail mean that padding has no place to exist. Once that happens there is space for the material and performances to breathe.
A key element of Breaking Bad is something called foreshadowing. The opening teasers are sometimes used for this effect. The floating pink teddy bear is the famous example. Foreshadowing also occurs in individual scenes. Ricin as a poison is first mentioned in season two but it is only used to murder someone near the end of season five. A filmed confession appears in the very first episode and another in season five. Examples of foreshadowing in Breaking Bad occur throughout the series.
Someone has to capture on film both the work of the actors and whatever else has been described by the writers. In an eight day shooting schedule corners have to be cut. Interior scenes present fewer problems for the cameraman and technicians. In simple scenes nothing more than a filter on the lens can add atmosphere. But all interior scenes will either require a set to be built or a location, such as the house of Walt and Skyler, to be managed. Filming exterior shots and locations is more complicated but moody urban streets or expansive landscapes provide visual opportunities which are rarely ignored by the cameraman. The mystery of Breaking Bad is not why Walt became a meth maker but how a small production team manages within eight days to produce a TV episode that looks and sounds like a Hollywood movie.
All TV series operate as projects, entities that need to be managed with recognised managerial skills. Contributors have to be valued and encouraged. Walter White was smart but he struggled in this area. Only psychopathic Gus Fring attempted to nurture and develop Jesse. Listen to Gilligan talk about his work on Breaking Bad, and it becomes obvious that he understands the importance of recognition and support. Gilligan is nowhere near as selective as Gus Fring. It may be tedious for outsiders to listen to ‘the boss’ referring to anyone who worked on Breaking Bad as wonderful. It is, though, a managerial skill. The technical term is the art of positive management. Gilligan practises it, and no doubt it influenced others on the project. Keep the positive messages flowing and everyone involved in the project becomes important. Without that the deal really would have had slip-ups.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.