Football is back, the leaves are turning, and Christian Slater is toplining a TV show with a shaky concept: It must be fall! Which also means it’s time for a deep dive into the old Grantland TV Mailbag. I have to say, a huge majority of the questions this week were about Breaking Bad. (Actually, a huge majority of the questions were from a MR ZHANG YONG asking if I had received his proposal. But that’s my fault for posting the mailbag e-mail address on the Internet.) I guess it makes sense: There are only three cooks left before Heisenberg’s blue goes off the market forever. Interest in the product is at an all-time high.
But rest assured, I did try to fit some other topics in here — just consider them the meat in the Breaking Bad sandwich. And remind me to forget about all of the filthy, filthy fan-fiction boards I just discovered by Googling “Breaking Bad sandwich.” Be warned: There are far worse situations for Badger and Skinny Pete to find themselves in than on the run from a ticked-off Walter White. And, as I just learned, blueberry pie isn’t reserved only for Badger’s Star Trek stories.
Is it possible that there is anything left to be said at this point about Breaking Bad that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? It’s a pantheon show, everyone loves it, and all the good angles — Mr. Chips/Scarface, prolonged science experiment, Rube Goldberg Morality Device — have been taken. Aren’t you all talked out?
—Andrei Grunvald, Somewhere Other Than Brooklyn
Great question! Glad I asked it.
From Todd’s penchant for Yacht Rock to Walt Jr.’s secret Instagram account, it seems as there isn’t a single aspect of Breaking Bad that has gone uncovered the past few, methy weeks. A show that began as our Rushmore is quickly devolving into our Tebow. (Honestly, though: What are we supposed to talk about between episodes? Low Winter Sun?) But there is one theory I’ve been sitting on, one that that has mostly fallen through the cracks of even my own feverish recapping, chin-stroking, and increasingly verbose podcasting. This seems as good a venue as any to lay it out.
Here goes: Breaking Bad is a period piece. I know, I know. This flies in the face of nearly every assumption made about Vince Gilligan’s merry morality play. In fact, it may contradict the very reason why some viewers have long preferred Breaking Bad to many of television’s other glittering, prestige hours. Unlike, say, Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad doesn’t cloak its characters in obsessively researched costumes, and it’s not forced to thread its plot through the preexisting stitches of history.1 But just because Walter White drove an Aztek instead of a Chevy Vega doesn’t mean Breaking Bad isn’t telling a story about the past. It’s just a very recent past and one that’s still very much leeching into our present, like gasoline into a shag carpet.
The one thread that unites them? Hats.
From the beginning, Gilligan wisely cemented his story into a very specific time and a very specific place2 — the fact that the “in-show” story has only taken a year isn’t the only reason why Breaking Bad‘s technology has never advanced beyond flip phones. Breaking Bad premiered on January 20, 2008. The Dow Jones had peaked at 14,000 just three months prior, but the times felt far leaner than the headlines. Even before the looming crash, there was a palpable sense of fraying around the edges: that a focus on two wars abroad had left the homeland unsecured in ways that airport security theater was powerless to address; that a generations-old social contract had been revealed to be as fraudulent as Enron stock.
This is why the neo-Nazis’ Season 5 reference to the death of Bin Laden was both jarring and surprising.
This was particularly true in the 21st-century boom towns built on bubbles that popped up — and then dramatically popped — in Florida and all across the American Southwest. It was into this uncertain, sun-scorched landscape that Vince Gilligan thrust Walter White, along with a laundry list of problems familiar to many middle-class men of a certain age. Even before the cancer arrived, bringing the roaring engine of plot to life (along with a pretty good argument in favor of universal health care),3 the world of Breaking Bad was homey but secretly bleak. On the surface, Walt had the American dream: two cars, a blonde wife, an inviting swimming pool out back. But beneath that chlorinated water lurked a dreadful sort of hunger: for more money, for stability and validation; for an escape from the unrewarding (in all senses) monotony of a day job. It’s a desperation that creeps into your bones like the unexpected chill in the New Mexico desert, a sudden midlife realization that resources aren’t limitless, that destiny isn’t manifest, and a happy ending isn’t promised — it might not even be possible.
You’ve heard the joke about the Canadian version of Breaking Bad, right? Let me link to it for you.
The story of Walter White’s transformation from milquetoast science teacher to fearsome drug lord has been exciting, horrifying, and never anything less than shocking. But, as I argued a few weeks ago, it also really wasn’t much of a transformation at all. What fueled all of the escalating awfulness of these past five years was the burning resentment that had always existed inside Walter, a lingering feeling that he was owed something greater and the larger world had welched on its side of the deal. Walt did everything “right,” so why did everything still go wrong? Part of this animus can be traced back to the fiasco with Gray Matter, the little start-up that transformed itself into a billion-dollar company on the back of Walter’s research.4 (And that, itself, is a clever nod to the speculation-stoked stock gains of Big Pharma over the last decade.) But a lot of it is just endemic to Walter White: aggrieved middle-aged white guy in the tail end of the Bush years, an era when the voracious rapaciousness of Wall Street finally crash-landed onto Main Street. Walter broke bad, but something in him broke first. He’s a product of his times, a guy who felt that society had cheated him so it was fair game to start cheating right back.
Which is basically the plot of the recent Larry David movie Clear History, which means I would really, really like to see the Larry David version of Breaking Bad. I imagine Bob Odenkirk would stay.
What’s been most fascinating to me these past few seasons has been the way Gilligan and his writers have connected both Walter’s story and something that I can only describe as 2007-ishness with a larger, historical strain of American exceptionalism. (As for my definition of 2007-ishness, well, it’s captured in Walter’s hideous choice of ride, in Jesse’s faded, post-mook uniform, in Walter Jr.’s guileless turn to the Internet in search of charity.) First there was the other W.W. and his exultant “Song of Myself” being willfully misread as a testament to ego. And now this half-season has embraced what may be America’s most enduring myth, that of the cowboy. Last week’s confrontation — on an Indian reservation, no less! — featured Hank as a swaggering, go-it-alone sheriff who went way off-book to corral a goatee-twirling villain who never for a moment thought he had done anything wrong. It was frontier justice for the both of them, two men taking charge of what was around them because they felt entitled to do so. The results, even interrupted, were predictably catastrophic.
It takes a certain kind of selfishness to do just about any of the things we celebrate loudest in this country: starting your own business, dunking a basketball, singing “I’ll Be” in a crowded auditorium. Breaking Bad holds a funhouse mirror up to a period in which that loud celebration seemed to be masking a deeper, more pervasive absence; when a lack of social mobility transformed the idea of putting “family first” from warm sentiment into something approaching a threat. I don’t make these points to take away from Breaking Bad‘s timelessness — if it ended today, with the bullets flying and Heisenberg’s fate uncertain, it’d still be on the Mount Rushmore of great dramas — just to suggest that one of the undercelebrated aspects of Breaking Bad‘s greatness is the way it paid such close attention to what time it actually was.
Who would be your All Time SNL cast including head writer? Considering that if you include Belushi his drug problems come with him, Eddie Murphy would have to work with Lorne Michaels, and Chevy Chase is a asshole?
This is a particularly resonant question this year, as Saturday Night Live is about to head into one of its regularly scheduled, two-times-a-decade seasons of uncertainty. That’s not meant as some punch-card, Saturday Night Dead fearmongering. In its 39th (!) season, the show remains as vibrant as ever: Last season SNL outrated just about everything else on NBC’s air.
But for an institution that has weathered many storms — many of them blizzards made out of real cocaine — the recent talent exodus is one of the most severe and sudden ever experienced. It’s expected that the stars will eventually leave, but SNL has never lost three core “glue guys” all at once as it did this past spring with the simultaneous departures of Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis, and, most damagingly, Bill Hader. To make matters murkier, head writer/”Weekend Update” host Seth Meyers will exit at midseason to prepare for his new gig at Late Night. So while I have no doubt Lorne Michaels will eventually get his ship back in shape — he has already hired a whole raft of fresh-faced white performers to join Taran Killam on the high seas — things might get a little wonky before they get better.5 In other words, there’s no better time to make my all-time dream team lineup. Since Saturday Night Live launched with seven cast members, that’s what I’ll go with here. Head writer is a no-brainer: Tina Fey. Not only did she oversee one of the show’s greatest creative periods, stashing her in the writers’ room saves me a spot in the main cast. (I would also invoke the Meyers Exemption here, allowing me to have Fey host “Weekend Update” again without necessarily having to appear in other sketches — although if she did, it’d be a bonus.) So, first, the gimmes:
That said, I am all-in on the Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon era. Let them live, Lorne! Let them live!
The above four are the unquestioned stars, the brightest, most incandescent talents the show has ever tried (and failed) to contain. Anything they do, I am likely to laugh. I’d love to include Belushi and Farley for similar reasons, but read Wade’s question again: I can’t have their drug abuse poisoning the show! I want incandescent talent that shines, not the type that burns out or flickers away its remaining energy recording blues-based vanity projects. As for Murray, I’m banking on receiving the guy who would eventually mature into the salt-and-pepper fruitcake we have today, a genius who marches to the beat of his own drummer, but one who is more and more willing to adjust his beat to accommodate people he respects.
For a moment I actually considered striking Eddie — blasphemy, I know — due to Wade’s restriction that I’d be getting the same Eddie that generally didn’t play well with others. (At least not with any others not named Joe Piscopo.)6 But you just can’t have an all-time cast and leave out the most talented individual ever to grace Studio 8H. Especially not when you have …
Piscopo narrowly missed the top seven, coming in at no. 141 with a bullet. Take that, Tim Kazurinsky!
The glue guys. Phil Hartman gets in easily, as he was often funnier in support of others than when he took the lead himself. A show can roll with a lot more weirdness and whimsy when it has a rock like Hartman as a foundation. Even so, with such a top-heavy cast, we actually could use another trip to the Elmer’s factory, so I’m going to make what is likely my most controversial pick and snag Bill Hader. Hader is never less than good, able to turn silent oddball turns as, say, Lindsey Buckingham into scene-stealers. Another plus? He’s aces at imitations, lessening the need for a devoted mimic like Darrell Hammond.
Shockingly, we’re now left to just one slot. So with apologies to Gilda Radner, Tracy Morgan, Martin Short, Jane Curtin, Al Franken, Chris Rock (who, while a genius, was never particularly suited to SNL), and basically the entire, overrated7 cast of my high school years (sorry, Sandler! My bad, Myers!), I’m going with Melanie Hutsell.
Speaking of overrated, my editor is mad at me for not including Dana Carvey. With all due respect, I am mad at him for suggesting it.
I’m going with Amy Poehler. She was capable of virtuoso insanity but also — and this is rare for a comedian, especially in the breakout hothouse of SNL — ready and willing to dial it back in the service of a sketch. Also, Poehler is (rightly!) recognized as one of the nicest human beings alive, a trait that will come in handy with so many egos fluttering around. So here’s my dream cast:
Tina Fey (head writer)
May it run for 1 million years with no one ever breaking, fewer people dying, and no athletes ever hosting.
Whatever happened to the great tradition of TV spin-offs? Did Joey kill them dead?
—Bill S., downtown L.A.
I’d tackle this question even if it hadn’t been raised by my boss during a podcast. There was a time when network executives thought success begat success and that hit shows could just be daisy-chained off of each other forever, until no one remembered which was the syndicated chicken and which was the Emmy-winning egg. Happy Days alone was responsible for a staggering seven spin-offs, ranging from the worthy (Laverne & Shirley) to the weak (Mork & Mindy) to the whaaaat (Out of the Blue). In fact, Happy Days was itself a spin-off (of Love, American Style)! Discovering this was like seeing the original ending of Blade Runner for the first time.
But ever since NBC struck gold with Frasier and then pyrite with Joey, it’s been mostly quiet out there. Spin-offs are often discussed — it seems every show Josh Schwartz has been associated with has tried at least one; the only one that hasn’t actually is a spinoff — but rarely achieved. (In this case, I’m talking true spin-offs, not just the often very profitable repeating of a format, in which Law & Order begets Law & Order: SVU and CSI begets all of CBS’s fall lineup.) ABC has had some success, spinning Private Practice off of Grey’s Anatomy, and TNT kept The Closer alive by spinning it into Major Crimes. This fall, ABC will try out Wonderland (from Once Upon a Time) and NBC is going with Chicago PD (from Chicago Fire). Both are seemingly safe carbon copies of a smooth-running original. Which is kind of the problem.
Successful TV shows are like snowflakes: No two are alike and none of them last for very long. It’s understandable that networks would want to maximize their profits by instantly re-creating them, but that sort of thinking tends to work better in other, more boilerplate industries. Like, say, the casting and manufacturing of boilerplates. The genius of Frasier was the way it instantly pivoted away from the outward trappings of Cheers — no bar, no Boston, no beer — but stayed true to the core, internal strengths of its parent show: smart comedy, warm atmosphere, and unseen wives.
My conversation with Bill focused on potential spin-offs from recent prestige shows, inspired by all the talk of Better Call Saul. So here are a couple more I’d like to see in that vein:
This was Bill’s idea, but I think it’s got legs — and not just because he can fire me. It’s an hour-long show focused on the Riggins brothers of Dillon, Texas. Derek Phillips returns as Billy Riggins, tiny general and sketchy mechanic turned family man. Taylor Kitsch returns from movie purgatory to star as Tim Riggins, leonine lady killer, ex-con, and the wayward brother Billy always has to keep an eye on. There are all sorts of possibilities for Tim’s post-prison life: Did he start a construction company after the completion of his dream home? Did Mindy hook him up with a career as a male escort? Or are his smoldering glares single-handedly fueling Dillon’s new green-energy power plant?
Bill suggests we have Tim coaching Panthers running backs and working at Home Depot — I’d say sure, and perhaps he’s doing it alongside his new best friend/foil, played by Wire vet/90210 survivor Tristan Wilds. And do you think we could convince Suzy Amis to come out of retirement to play the long-lost Mama Riggins? Or, in another direction, poach Margo Martindale from The Millers? This is the rare show that could combine the faith and family of Duck Dynasty without any need for gratuitous beards or avian slaughter. There are plenty of big stories left in one of TV’s all-time great small towns. Why aren’t anyone’s eyes clear enough — or their hearts full enough — to see that?
At the end of The Wire, McNulty’s not a cop anymore. You know what I say? Good riddance! Let’s just boil down the greatest show of all time into a rich and rewarding master stock. Even without Dominic West, without all of the urban scope and nuance that made The Wire great — hell, even without David Simon — the cop parts alone would make for the best cop show in history. I’m thinking Wendell Pierce in the lead as Bunk, Clarke Peters and Sonja Sohn sticking around as Lester and Kima. Delaney Williams is back, eating up everything, including the scenery, as Jay Landsman. And since this show basically already existed in the ’90s — it was called Homicide: Life on the Street; it was fantastic — why not import Andre Braugher and get him to resurrect Frank Pembleton, one of the all-time great TV characters? With a pedigree like this — and, I’m assuming, a network with a reputation and coffers like HBO — you’d have no trouble attracting all sorts of phenomenal talent to fill out the main cast and the guest star log. Maybe Catherine Keener as one of the BPD’s few female detectives? Maybe Jeffrey Wright could do a season-long arc once he gets bored of Boardwalk? The possibilities — like the appeal of pit beef and the number of bodies in the vacants — is limitless.
I may be in a minority here, but the end of Lost did nothing to diminish my fondness for its beginning and middle. And here’s the thing: There’s so much middle still remaining! Found would star a beloved character who was particularly ill-served by the mushy resolution: Sun-Hwa Kwon. Remember in the flash-forwards, when we got a glimpse of steely, post-island Sun? She was a trench coat–wearing power broker, a single mom who single-handedly ran the powerful and mysterious Paik Heavy Industries while scouring the world for clues about Dharma, Widmore, and all the other major players in the island conspiracy. In other words, she was awesome. And then all of that was tossed out the window and drowned in a sinking submarine labeled The Soulmate.
So! Let’s build a show around Sun’s off-island years! As much as some purists may hate the idea, this actually fits right into ABC’s established brand. In Yunjin Kim, we have a strong, ass-kicking female lead (Alias) who also believes in true love and losing people in outrageously convoluted ways (Grey’s Anatomy), all doused in a healthy dose of magical nonsense (Once Upon a Time). The best thing is, since Lost introduced time travel, we can actually use Found to retcon a better ending for the original series. Win-win! (Network note: no polar bears.)
Ten years after the events of Breaking Bad, two young people who had both been deeply scarred by the actions of the legendary monster known as Heisenberg team up on a cross-country vigilante spree like no other. When they met (at 7 a.m. at an Albuquerque strip club advertising a special buffet known as “Legs and Eggs”), Flynn Black (formerly known as Walter White Jr.) and Brock Cantillo bonded over two things: that Walter White had ruined their lives, and a deep, abiding love of breakfast. Now the two roam the diners and IHOPs of the U.S., eighty-sixing the abusive husbands of waitresses, deep-frying drug-dealing short-order cooks, and generally ensuring the homeland security of your local Waffle House. Afterward, the two Trixters reminisce about the bad old days over milky white Russians with maple syrup chasers. Breakfast isn’t just the most important meal of the day: It’s the most important thing in their lives. Don’t threaten it and make them end yours.
With all these new channels and need for affordable content, would you endorse a reboot of Battle of the Network Stars? And if so …
Some of the key questions to answer: 1. Which is the first network to begin stocking its dramas with washed up pro athletes to win outright? 2. How soon before AMC fires team captain Jon Hamm and replaces him with Andrew Lincoln? 3. And what is the signature moment of the first season? I’m going with Claire Danes’ cry face after she stumbles during her floor routine.
1. I’m gonna go out on the world’s shortest limb here and say it’s the network banking its future on Million Second Quiz and James Spader’s smirk.
2. Why would you want Andrew Lincoln in a leadership position? Have you not been watching The Walking Dead?!? The AMC team would be wandering the streets of Burbank, unkempt and searching for Carl within hours. I’d give the captain’s badge to John Slattery because at least the after-party would be liquid and long.
3. So many to choose from! Here’s my quick viewer’s guide:
• Nick Offerman meticulously whittling his own javelin and then throwing it so far it accidentally — and quite ironically — impales the guy who played Robb Stark.
• Lena Dunham insisting on joining the “skins” team even though that’s not how the show works.
• The cast of Modern Family winning the gold medal even though they don’t deserve it this year.
• The dudes from True Blood getting tested for doping more frequently than the U.S. Postal Service team at the Tour de France.
• The kid who plays Chris Brody dunking on haters like the Phoenix Suns mascot.
I heard a spoiler that this season of Homeland starts with Carrie working a jazz and wine bar somewhere in Canada. Is this true?
Patrick, I hate to break it to you: I have seen the first two episodes of Homeland Season 3, and it is absolutely not true.
But oh my god do I wish it were! First of all, the idea of a “jazz and wine bar somewhere in Canada” is, in and of itself, one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. I can’t decide if it’s better to consider it as a fantastic euphemism for death — better even than Breaking Bad‘s recent “trip to Belize” — or just take it literally. In the latter case, I’m picturing Bob and Doug McKenzie trying to explain the difference between a Pinot Grigio and a Pinot Blanc while the dude from Barenaked Ladies freestyles a (not) hot 16 about the soulfulness of Charlie Parker. As awful as that sounds, Carrie could at least avail herself of the generous nationalized health care system to get her mind right, and the need to wear thick woolen gloves at all times would mean she wouldn’t have to worry about the fake wedding ring when cruising for one-night stands with local hockey players.
What am I talking about? I would watch this show. Arguably the most famous Canadian jazz musician died in 1978 and they don’t serve Labatt Blue in magnums and yet this whole thing is already no more implausible than the actual reality of Homeland Season 3.
And now, because you either demanded it or didn’t have anything else to talk about, a Breaking Bad lightning round:
Where does Breaking Bad‘s final season rank among greatest final seasons of all time? I honestly can’t think of anything that tops it so far, although there’s still the (very unlikely) chance that Vince and co. will blow it in the last three episodes.
Assuming they don’t suddenly reveal the entire show to have been a fever dream suffered by Walt Jr. after ingesting an expired toaster strudel, Breaking Bad‘s place at the top of this list is secure. Also assuming you don’t want me to count shows that had amazing final seasons that were also their only seasons (Freaks and Geeks, Terriers), my list would look like this.
1. Breaking Bad
2. Friday Night Lights
3. The Shield
4. 30 Rock
5. The Sopranos (if we judged only the last three episodes, this would be no. 1)
You’ll notice all of these are from the last decade. That’s because shows didn’t really end in the old, pre-serialization days. They, like this answer, kinda just stopped.
I think that the ultimate twist would be the Seinfeld finale, where Walt and his wife have plead innocent, and are then forced to sit in court listening to the testimony of everyone they’ve wronged (who’s still alive) one by one, with Saul intermittently objecting/hamming it up, and then before the fade to black, Walt, sitting in a cell with Skyler, asks her if she thinks the second button on his shirt is too high. Talk about sticking your landing.
—Tony from PA
Just think of the Soup Nazi/neo-Nazis parallels! I’m in. Speaking of which …
I was thinking while watching Breaking Bad, about anti-heroes, and that they always have a little good in them. However, I can’t think of a time where Nazi’s or Neo-Nazi’s ever have a shred of good in them. Has a Nazi ever been shown in a positive light on TV?
You know, I was going to ignore this question or at least chuckle over it a bit before handing it over to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But then I realized that TV has, in recent years, made me care about subjects and people I never thought it’d be possible to have a shred of sympathy for, let alone have interest in. I’m talking Mafia hit men, vicious drug dealers — even smug Berkeley liberals.
But I think I would draw the line at Nazis. As funny as Hogan’s Heroes could be,8 it was always hard for me to get around the whole ideological followers of a discredited, violent hate group dedicated to the extinction of an entire race thing.
I know. Mr. Sensitive over here!
So after watching “To’hajiilee” on Sunday night, my friends and I were literally screaming at the TV — my neighbors probably think I care a little too much about Eli Manning now. When I got into bed, head still reeling, I knew I had to watch another show before I could sleep. Without blinking, I fired up episode 810 of Dexter, which I’ll remind you centers on a serial killer, to calm my nerves.
The implications of this on Dexter’s potency as a thriller notwithstanding, it got me thinking — what do you watch to come down from crazy episodes of top-notch TV (i.e. the Red Wedding)? Comedies? Home videos? Honey Boo Boo?
—Victor B, San Francisco
Victor, I appreciate the question but I think you’ve got me figured wrong. I’m what’s known as a “thrill-seeker.” I tear the tags out of pillows, I mix caffeine and alcohol — often in the same day — and one time I caught myself walking briskly with scissors. When TV gets me too amped up, I tend to chase adrenaline with more adrenaline. Why, just the other week I followed an episode of Chopped with a DVR’d episode of Chopped Champions. My pulse didn’t slow down for MINUTES.
But seriously: When an episode as intense as the most recent Breaking Bad arrives, I do what everyone would do in a similar situation. I turn on all the lights in my house, grab a binky, and watch reruns of Parks and Recreation until the anti-anxiety meds kick in.
Remember, people. I’m a television professional.