I’m a terrible TV watcher.
By that I mean I never keep up. I hear about shows I’d like to watch from somewhere or other, make note of the night, time and station, and then forget all about it until the day after it airs. I’m always behind. Of course, Netflix and Amazon and On Demand means the actual schedule is largely meaningless; miss it, and you can easily see it almost any time, and sometimes even commercial free.
My wife would tell you I’m a terrible TV watcher because of what I like. Beginning way back with a show called Millennium
, which aired on Fox right after The X-Files
for a few years, I’ve developed a penchant for dark drama and dark comedy. Millennium
, and then dark comedies like Weeds
(while I’m not sure either of those exactly qualify as comedy, they’re much more humorous than Oz
). And now I’m hooked on Breaking Bad
I watched season 1 of Breaking Bad last spring but sort of dropped it over the summer, even though I really liked it. I started season 2 right after vacation. After reading over the AW thread on “Why movies?” I referenced last week, I was watching Breaking Bad and had that ‘ah hah!’ reaction, and I realized I was watching a writing clinic. Sure, TV and movies are vastly different media from books, yet you can still learn from the best, and Breaking Bad may be the best show on television. Here are two areas where Breaking Bad excels:
Characterization. We’re always told to flesh out our characters, make them real, three-dimensional people, with hopes and dreams–and flaws. Our ‘hero’ of Breaking Bad, Walter White, is definitely three-dimensional. He’s a 50-year old high school chemistry teacher who is already working 2 jobs to make ends meet when he finds out he’s got inoperable lung cancer. He’s also got a baby on the way, a 15-year old son with Cerebral Palsy, and a crappy insurance plan. While he expects to be alive when his daughter his born, he knows he’ll likely never see her take her first steps, and will probably not see his son graduate high school. He’s been dealt a shitty hand, so maybe, maybe we can forgive him for his decision to apply his knowledge of chemistry to cooking up the best, most pure methamphetamine the world has ever seen. After all, it’s bad enough he’s going to die; he’s also likely to bankrupt his family in the process. Cooking meth is the avenue to taking care of his family. We may not condone it, but we can certainly feel for the guy.
But, to be honest, Walter is not a guy I like very much, even without the meth. If he were my teacher, I’d probably call him a prick. He’s a stickler for detail. Worst of all, and what is really behind his plight is he’s proud, almost to the point of arrogance. It takes him weeks to reveal his condition to his wife. When he’s offered a high-paying job by an old friend who’s a multi-millionaire, Walter turns it down once he finds out his wife told his friend about his cancer, and he compounds this by refusing to let his friend pay—no strings attached—for his treatment. Walter will not accept charity.
And when it comes to dealing with his partner, underachieving former student, Jesse Pinkman, we see even more of Walter’s bad side. Walter is selfish: he demands that everything happen on histerms, at his convenience. He shows, initially, little concern for anything but himself, and he’s pigheaded to boot. There’s Walter’s way of doing things, and then there’s the wrong way. These things make Walter a complex character. Quite frankly, he’s difficult to like, and difficult to root for, yet I sympathize with his plight, and I feel badly for him when his marriage starts to crumble, even though he’s the architect of his own demise.
Breaking Bad also excels at showing, not telling. Now, this may seem odd, the notion of a TV show telling, as opposed to showing, but they do, on a regular basis. Whether it’s a lab technician on CSI or Law & Order breaking in with an “As you know, Bob…” moment, or an ADA jumping in to explain a point of law that the characters might be expected to know, programs ‘tell’ like this on a regular basis. On shows with highly technical things happening, it is necessary so that viewers can understand what’s happening, but it’s sometimes used as a shortcut to characterization or to reveal backstory as well.
Breaking Bad does precious little of this. We learn about Walter and Jesse and the others in how they react to the other characters, and the situations they get themselves into. We see how Walter reacts to the job offer from his friend; we see him berating and insulting Jesse for mistakes that are at least partly Walter’s fault, because Walter doesn’t communicate very well. We see Walter bemoaning to his money-laundering lawyer the fact that he’s got a half-million dollars in cash that he can’t really spend, and we sense that half the problem for Walter is that his family doesn’t know the lengths he’s gone to to earn that money. SPOILER: when he finally tells Skyler what he’s been doing, you know that he wants her to acknowledge that sacrifice he’s made. It’s brilliantly done, not because he says it outright, but because you pick up the subtext.
Good characters, showing, not telling, these are things we know we need to do in writing, yet every once in a while those lessons just get reinforced somewhere, sometimes in unexpected places. Breaking Bad
did it for me. How about you? Any TV or movies that you’ve found provide great lessons in writing?
I just want to add that I’m sending good thoughts out to all you folks on the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Isaac heads your way. I hope it passes quickly and uneventfully.