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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
TV Round-Up: Breaking Bad
Thirty-Eight Snub
One of the things I've heard producer and series creator Vince Gilligan say time and time again about Breaking Bad is that it's not just the story about how a guy goes from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but also about the times in between those actions and the ramifications on the characters. No where is that more evident than in this week's episode as we see the continued fall-out from not only what happened last week, but from everything that's happened up until now.

The episode starts out with Walt deciding he has to take matters into his own hands and eliminate the threat of Gus. He buys a black market gun and then practices drawing it, hoping to get into a room with Gus and eliminate Gus. But Walt's plan begins to derail when it appears that Gus has finally clued in that being around Walt isn't a good idea and he'll send his messages now through other sources. He's also less trusting of Walt and Jesse, making the two re-weight their final payload after cooking. Walt goes to Gus's home to try and kill him but is warned off by Mike. Then later Gus tries to convince Mike to get him in a room with Gus and Mike summarily belts him one and delivers a few quick kicks to the ribs to make his point.

Watching Walt's attempt to resurrect and channel the Heisenberg persona is fascinating. In the past, Walt has used the persona has used the persona in short bursts and while we've seen that he really, really likes it, he's never embraced it for long. One big thing in those cases in the past is the other parties involved near saw Heisenberg coming. Gus is aware of Heisenberg and is probably aware that this side of Walt could be coming for him. If he's not, at least Mike is and Mike is ready to send back his own message--as bad as you think you are, you aren't bad enough to take me on...at least not yet. Gilligan has stated several times that this season will be a chess match between Gus and Walt, with Walt having to embrace the bad-ass side of himself. So far, the opening moves of the chess game seem to all be going to Gus. Walt pulled a surprise move in eliminating Gale, but since then he's been on the defensive, reacting to Gus's moves.

The question is--will Walt ever get to where he's two steps ahead of Gus again? Will Gus allow it? Walt is incredibly reactionary to danger and threats at times. He and Jesse tend to get into the most trouble when something goes awry that Walt didn't anticipate. I have to wonder if this season we'll see Walt stumble into a victory over Gus not because of being meticulous but because the lack of foresight in some areas makes Walt too unpredictable.

Meanwhile, on the Jesse front, his downward spiral continues. Last year, he said he came to the realization in therapy that he's the bad guy. And while we saw him embrace it last year, this time he's crossed a huge line and is having a hard time dealing with the consequences. He's haunted by the fact that he killed Gale and possibly by all the baggage he's accumulated in the time he's been associated with Walt. He's made some moves to try and get some of the pieces back into his life, but each one falls short. He bought his aunt's house from his parents but it's not quite filing the void. He's trying to reach out to his old drug running buddies and throw a wild party, but it's not quite filling the void. Even his relationship with Andrea is meant to be an attempt to rekindle some kind of feeling of normalcy with someone, but it doesn't work. While Andrea shares some characteristics with Jane, she can't quite fill the void left by Jane's death. It's interesting to see that Jesse tries to give some of the money he's made to Andrea so she and her son can escape their situation...but that he's just as ready to believe she could easily spend it all on drugs as the escape. Basically, she'd put herself on the same spiral that he's on--once on the wagon, but now completely fallen off and picking up speed as he plummets downhill.

Meanwhile, Hank continues to rehab, being wonderful to his physical therapist but putting Marie through the ringer. His obsession with minerals has to be leading somewhere but right now I can't quite see where it might all go. I have a feeling should Hank ever get back on the Heinsenberg case, Walt is in a lot of trouble because he'll be even more relentless than before.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 7/26/2011 03:11:00 AM | |
Monday, July 18, 2011
TV Round-Up: Breaking Bad, "Box Cutter"
I've spent the last couple of weeks catching up on AMC's award-winning series Breaking Bad. I'd watched the first couple of episodes, drawn in by the pedigree of Vince Gilligan from his work on The X-Files. But somehow I got behind and while many others appreciated the genius of the show, I was far behind and never could quite catch up.

Thankfully, the show is on cable so seasons are only 13 episodes long...not too bad a catch-up if you really want to do it. And watching Breaking Bad, catching up is exactly what you want to do.

So much so that I've caught up now, watched the opening episode of season four and find myself feeling a bit of a void as I have to wait six more days to find out what happens next....

This show is that good. But it's probably not for everyone. It's dark, it's brutal and it's unflinching. It started out as a dark comedy about an ordinary chemistry teacher who when he finds out he has lung cancer decides to cook meth to help leave something behind for his family. He finds an old student whose a low level drug maker and dealer and uses his knowledge of the drug trade to begin making money. Since that time, the show has evolved into something more, showing the slow destruction of Walter White and how he poisons all those who come into contact with him. We've seen Walt realize he's only feeling fulfilled when he takes on his drug kingpin persona of Heisenberg and that he's incredible vain and short sighted at times. His weakness his ego and a need for gratification. He also has an amazing sense of self-deception as he can do terrible things and somehow justify them to himself. One stand out scene in season two sees Walt allowing his partner's girlfriend to choke on her own vomit and die simply because she's an obstacle to his overall safety and business.

All of which brings up to season four. One good thing about burning through the final couple of season three episodes on a lazy Sunday afternoon is that I only had to wait a few hours to see how it all picked up. Because man, season three ended on one hell of a cliffhanger.

Since it started, Breaking Bad has not only been about the slow destruction of Walter White, but also about the smaller moments that take place between the crimes being committed on screen. And it's in those episodes the show works brilliantly well. As amazingly on the edge of my seat as I was in last year's episode that Walt and Jessie trapped in the incriminating RV as his brother in law and DEA agent, Hank showed up outside because he was following Jessie, the episodes that examine the consequences of actions are just as good. If you're looking at season three, I point you to the fly in the lab episode and the one following Hank's attack by the Cousins.

"Box Cutter" is also about examining the consequences of actions. As last season wound down, Walt realized that his new boss, Gus, was preparing to eliminate Walt and allow lab assistant Gale to take over the cooking. Walt quickly decided that to save he and Jessie, Gale had to go. Meanwhile, Jessie was having issues with some of Gus' distributors, leading to Walt killing two of them and sending Jessie on the run. It all came to a head when Gus brings Walt in, supposedly to kill him. Walt appears to betray Jessie, instead using the phone call to let Jessie know where Gale is and giving the order to kill him. The season ended with Jessie at Gale's door, crying and forced to carry out Walt's orders to save them both.

And then, season four starts. Walt believes he's got the upper hand on Gus, for now since no one else can cook like he can. It's his formula and only he and Jessie can make it. What Walt doesn't count on is that one of Gus' men who has been guarding them in the lab might just be able to do it. The tension mounts as Walt and Jessie sit the lab, waiting for Gus to arrive. The guard shows them he knows enough to "follow the recipe" and starts making a batch of the signature blue meth.

Gus shows up and in a sequence that is both riveting and horrifying, shows Walt just how serious he is. It involves the box-cutter of the title and it's mean to send a message to Walt that everyone is expendable. It also shows just how much or little value Gus places on anyone or anything that gets in the way of his business. It's as dark and violent as the show has ever been--and yet it's a quiet moment. While Walt is justifying his decision, the sounds of Gus walking into the lab, changing into a protective pair of coveralls and then killing the man who made the mistake of being seen at Gale's after Jessie pulled the trigger and could link him back to Gus is one of the most compelling, dark and utterly horrifying moments we've had in this series..and that's saying a lot because this series is full of them.

Interestingly, Gilligan has stated on numerous occasions that he wants to end the series with the audience hating Walt. It's not hard too do. This isn't one of those cases of rooting for the bad guy or an anti-hero. At this point, there is little left to redeem Walt or make him likeable. But it's a credit to Gilligan's writing team and to actor Bryan Cranston that Walt is still compelling and utterly watchable. I can see how some could compare Walt to Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey, but in the case of those shows we met both characters after they'd chosen the life of crime. Breaking Bad takes the interesting route of showing us an ordinary guy who is likeable at first and shows us how he slowly becomes an evil, evil man. Watching the show, it's easy to see why Cranston has won three straight Emmys...and will probably pick up another one for season four based on what we've seen here.

If you haven't watched this one yet, get the DVDs and catch up. It's worth every last second.

I can't wait for next week....

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 7/18/2011 07:22:00 PM | |

Retro TV Round-Up: Star Trek
"Where No Man Has Gone Before"

While I've long since become a bigger fan of Star Trek, my initial interest in Trek came through my childhood fandom of Star Wars. Growing up at a time when Star Wars was huge, I was eager to consume anything that looked even remotely similar, leading me to beg my mother to take me to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it finally came to the base movie theater. Proving just how much my mother loves me and just how little she and my dad underestimated that exposing me to Star Trek and later Doctor Who would lead to life-long fandoms of both franchises, she took me.

The only thing I can really recall about seeing The Motion Picture at the base theater was thinking that it was nothing like Star Wars or the movie version of Buck Rogers we'd seen there. I also recall wondering how it could look so awesome on the back cover of some many comic books and yet be so....well, dull. (I've later come to appreciate The Motion Picture, but at the time it was a huge letdown).

Thankfully, there was tie-in merchandise (in this case, Power records stories) and the Saturday morning cartoon. Both helped me to figure out there was more to Trek than TMP. And while I'd not seen a full episode yet, I was still intrigued enough to want to find out more about the Star Trek universe.

Then, along came Wrath of Khan. Now, I'd seen a random episode of Trek or two leading up to Wrath of Khan, but it was with Khan that my fandom began to blossom into what it is today. Part of it was that a local station where we were living at the time decided to show two nights of Star Trek repeats in primetime to help fans get ready to see the movie. It was the summer time and my parents agreed that I could stay up later than usual and watch both episodes on both nights. Of the four, the only one that I remember specifically being shown was this one, the second pilot for Trek, "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

As many of you know, NBC dismissed the original pilot for Trek, "The Cage," as being "too cerebral." But they liked it enough to give Gene Roddenberry a second chance, but only if he bumped up the action a bit more. Roddenberry went back and commissioned or worked on three scripts for the new pilot, eventually deciding to go with "Where No Man Has Gone Before" as the second pilot. (The others would eventually see the light of day, one in season one and the other in season two).

In syndication, this one always airs first in the running order. In the original NBC air order, it runs third. Which I have to imagine was a bit disconcerting to fans watching them on the original run. The look and feel of "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is so different from the two episodes that aired before it that it's not hard to figure that a lot of head scratching went on. That said, it's the best of the first three aired episodes.

Watching the episode again, the thing that strikes me most is how many of the pieces of classic Trek are all there, but they're still a bit unpolished. The most striking thing thing time around was how the remastering work revealed how green Spock's original make-up was. (I'm going to have to pop in the Blu-Ray with "The Cage" to see if this is true there also). It's fairly striking and it, along with the pointed ears, seems to scream "Hey, this guy is an alien."

Of course, the script works to make sure we know this with lots of line about Spock's different heritage and how he's half-human. It's a lot of exposition and set-up and while it's heavy-handed at times, it quickly and neatly establishes things.

The action quotient of this one is also revved up as well. The Enterprise is probing out of the galaxy, following same route as an earlier ship the Valiant. While trying to probe out through the galactic barrier, the ship is pummeled by energy, leaving it crippled. There's also the small matter of two crew members getting a strange glow around them during the devastation--the new ship's psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner and the navigator and Kirk's old friend, Gary Mitchell. Mitchell starts showing outward signs of a change first as his eyes being to glow a silver color and he begins to develop god-like powers.

Before long, Mitchell has consumed the entire ship's library and is setting his mind to bigger things--such as taking over the ship and possibly more. On the surface, Mitchell's transformation from Kirk's close friend to mortal enemy may seem a bit rapid, but the script wisely throws in a line about how Mitchell manipulated Kirk in the early days of the friendship. It sets up that Mitchell will see the ends justifying the means, so long as he benefits from it. It also shows he's got an ambitious streak and is willing to take short cuts to get what he wants. So his embracing his god-like powers and his rising arrogance aren't as out of left field as they could seem.

The ship is forced to head to Delta Vega, a mining colony that may have the equipment to repair the ship and may be a place to maroon Mitchell. (If you pay close attention to the dialogue of 2009's Star Trek, you may note that this is same location that Spock chooses to maroon Kirk when he puts Kirk off the Enterprise. ) The ship is repaired but not before Mitchell has escaped and Dehner started to show signs of developing abilities of her own. Thankfully, her eyes glow silver as well so we are aware of this.

Kirk follows them out to a rocky area, pits them against each other and uses the chaos to fight and kill Mitchell. Or at least we're left to assume Mitchell is dead....I've always thought a great tie-in novel would see Mitchell somehow alive and coming back to menace either Kirk and company again or the TNG crew. OK, maybe that's a bit too much like Wrath of Khan now that I really think about it...

Looking at this second pilot, you can see why the show was picked up. It had all the action NBC wanted, but yet Roddenberry was able to slip in a few philosophical points between the bridge exploding and Kirk and Mitchell beating the stuffing out of each other. The show does contain one of the more blatant on-screen continuity errors and it certainly feels a bit different from what's to come. But the pieces are all there and the episode is one that regularly makes it onto top ten lists for the original series.

Part of that is the sense of how alone the Enterprise is and the danger in exploring space. A log entry after the encounter with the galactic barrier points this out, saying how star bases that were once days or weeks away are now years in the distance. It's this sense of how scary and dangerous space can really be and how alone Kirk and company truly are that drives a lot of the episode. Enterprise tried to recapture this a bit in its early seasons, but even it moved away from this after a while. I like it and it's something we'll see a couple of more times during classic Trek.

Another thing that always hits me watching these early episodes is to hear how the incidental music is used in the episode it was written for. Trek recycled a lot of incidental music, so the cues will sound familiar. But the first four or five episodes all showcase the music for the first time and I always find it fascinating to see how the music is meant to enhance the story the first times it's used.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 7/18/2011 11:55:00 AM | |
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Wish I'd Thought of It First
Best laugh I've had in a while....




posted by Michael Hickerson at 7/14/2011 10:42:00 AM | |
Monday, July 11, 2011
Retro TV Round-Up: Star Trek
"Charlie X"

With classic Trek making its long-awaited debut on Netflix streaming last week, I quickly realized that I'd let my plan to watch and review the first season of one of my favorite series fall by the wayside since I did a retro review of "The Man Trap" several months ago. So it was that Friday evening I got out the Blu-Rays of classic Star Trek and fired them up to watch the second aired episode (but actually the sixth produced), "Charlie X."

I realize that "Charlie X" probably isn't an episode that many fans are going to put on their top ten list of great Trek installments, but I will admit I have a certain fondness for it. Part of it was that in high school, I used it as part of a segment for a youth group retreat on acceptance. The story was a great illustration of the desire many have to be accepted and the lengths they'll go to in order to achieve that. It went over fairly well--either that or my friends on the retreat were too polite to tell me I was crazy....it's one of the two.

If you think that teen angst was something brought into Trek by Wesley Crusher, you'd be wrong. It shows up in full force here, though some might argue that Charlie is a more intriguing character than Wesley was in the first season or so of TNG.

The Enterprise rendezvouses with the cargo ship the Antares to bring aboard Charlie Evans, the only survivor of a ship crash on the planet Thasis. Charlie was a baby when the ship crashed and has lived on the planet alone for seventeen years, learning to talk from the ship's computer banks and somehow finding enough food to eat on the planet. This shouldn't be the case since Spock later points out that Thasis doesn't exactly have the plant life necessary for a human being to survive, much less grow up to the age of seventeen as Charlie has done.

Because of this, Charlie is a bit on the socially awkward side. He interrupts Kirk often during a conversation with the captain of the Antares and his awe struck when he sees his first girl. Charlie is a character who doesn't have a great filter and has very few unexpressed thoughts, including the amusing end to the teaser like of "Is that a girl? when he first meets Janice Rand.

We get an idea early on that something may not be right with Charlie since the Antares crew is eager to dump the kid on Kirk and head for the proverbial hills. They do eventually try to contact the Enterprise via subspace, but the ship is destroyed before they can warn Kirk about what's really going here.

Charlie tries to fit into the society on board the Enterprise, but finds himself frustrated at every turn. He tries to win Janice's affection by providing her favorite perfume and impressing her with magic tricks. He tries to learn how to play chess with Spock, only to be angered when Spock easily beats him. Charlie responds to all of this by doing what most teenagers do--rolling his eyes. Except unlike most teens, Charlie can roll his eyes and make bad things happen. He can make you disappear or turn into a lizard or melt the chess pieces. Charlie starts off trying to use his power to make people like him--he manipulates the cards in the card tricks and turns meatloaf into turkeys for the crew's Thanksgiving dinner--but as the episode goes along Charlie quickly starts using them to enforce his will on others in a desperate attempt to get people to like him.

Charlie latches onto Kirk as father-figure and the two engage in a battle of wills as Charlie slowly takes over the ship. The Enterprise is headed to a colony to drop Charlie off and he's not going to let anything stand in his way. I guess he figures that since he's burned all his bridges of friendship on the Enterprise that a fresh start on the colony will be exactly what he needs. Kirk notices that since the Enterprise is bigger than the Antares and has a larger crew, Charlie has stretched himself to the limit of his power. Kirk pushes him beyond it and regains control of the ship, just in time to get a message from a ship following the Enterprise. It's a Thasian ship that has come to take Charlie back to Thasis. Seems he slipped off when they weren't looking and for his own good and the sake of the rest of the universe, Charlie has to go back.

Charlie is not keen on this idea, begging to stay. But he's sent back and the damage he did is undone by the Thasian.

The story of "Charlie X" is a tragedy and one of the more heavy-handed ones in all of Trek. The Thasians are pretty rigid in their assertion that Charlie can't be taught to control his power and will pretty much run amok wherever he goes. (Interestingly, this theme will come back in TNG when Riker is offered the power of the Q in the first sesaon). Kirk argues it could work, but sits by as Charlie returns to the Thasian ship at episode's end.

The battle of wills between Kirk and Charlie is interesting. Early on, Charlie latches onto Kirk as a father-figure, a role that Kirk is reluctant to accept. In many ways, this is an early showcase for William Shatner as Kirk. Kirk's slow burn as Charlie takes over the ship and crew is matched only by the scene where Kirk is forced to explain to Charlie why it's not appropriate to slap a woman on the behind. (The expression on Kirk's face when Charlie tells him that Rand said he'd explain it all is priceless). It becomes clear about mid-way through that Charlie will only respect Kirk and that he is desperate for the captain's approval. Charlie is visibly upset when when Kirk leaves the chess game and instead of teaching him how to play, leaves Spock to do it.

It's interesting that in the original airing order of the series that we'll get back-to-back episodes of Kirk engaging in a battle of wills with someone who has god-like powers. "Charlie X" may lack the emotional investment that Kirk has with Gary Mitchell, but it's still interesting to see that early on there's really no good way to stop someone with these incredible powers beyond sending them back to the people who gave them the powers or leaving them for dead on a lithium cracking station.

At this point, the series is still finding its voice and footing. Interestingly, the show gives us a lot of scenes of what daily life is like on board the ship. We hear about the Thanksgiving meal, we see the rec lounge for two scenes and we spend some time in the Enterprise gym. As the series finds it footing and voice, these moments are fewer and farther between, but they're a nice little addition to this story.

So, while it's not the greatest episode of classic Trek ever produced, I still think "Charlie X" is a good one. It's a couple of steps in the right direction for the series and it's a showcase for Kirk. You could do a lot worse. I'll take this one over "And the Children Shall Lead" any day....

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 7/11/2011 11:08:00 AM | |
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