Bad, Real Bad

Its all over. Let it sink in. While it’s unclear who will miss Breaking Bad more: us as viewers or AMC as a top tier network, it’s crystal (blue meth) clear that Breaking Bad is one of the most influential shows in the history of television and not just for its content, but for its presence.

Breaking Bad was a little known show playing second fiddle to AMC’s critical powerhouse Mad Men for its first two and a half seasons or so. I mean Hal from Malcolm in the Middle playing a drug lord? Get right out of town. Cut to: Bryan Cranston winning the first of three straight Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Combine this with consistent and positive word of mouth/social media hype, an easy way for interested viewers to catch up before the new season (borrowing Netflix from your friend who pays for it) and boom: you have a TV drama that’s a pop culture phenomenon by the time season five premieres–the likes of which we hadn’t seen since The Sopranos cut to black in 2007.

Breaking Bad was a serious underdog to become a hit when it premiered but started to gain buzz at the perfect time. Viewers wanted the constant and instant stimulation that has become so common in today’s society from television, and they got it with Netflix and other video on demand options. Binge watching is a huge part of television watching culture, and Breaking Bad is the shining example of how big a show can become because of it. The season 4 finale garnered a (large at the time) 1.9 million viewing audience. Last nights episode? 10.3 million. What?! Cut to: Vince Gilligan thanking Netflix in his Emmy acceptance speech. The difference between Breaking Bad and other great binge watching shows is that it was satisfying as a weekly installment, even after a viewer caught up with Netflix. Watching it live (or a few minutes behind) was still an event every Sunday this season, something that was becoming a thing of the past for dramas, especially ones with commercials. The Wire (widely considered the greatest TV drama of all time) was not nearly as popular until after it was off the air, when it available to be watched in binge form. No one got together with friends on Sundays to watch The Wire in the early to mid 2000s, it just wasn’t a thing to do, it wasn’t an event.

Breaking Bad’s ability to maintain viewer interest as both a binge watching show and as installment came down to its consistency. That’s the main argument Breaking Bad has in the “Greatest TV Drama of All Time” discussion, it was more consistently good than any other show in the history of the medium. Quick: What’s Breaking Bad’s worst season? Weakest episode? Couldn’t tell ya. There was no definitive point that had viewers wondering if the show was on the verge of infamously “jumping the shark.” The Wire had season 5 and The Sopranos had season 4, which both had audiences thinking “is this the same show I’ve been watching this whole time?” Whether or not its better than The Sopranos and The Wire is a debate that will be had for years to come (can we for once breathe for a second before we decide the newest great thing is automatically the best?), but it was consistently episode by episode, season by season better than both.

Breaking Bad ended its run better than most shows do (just ask a Dexter fan) it didn’t take too many chances or leave the ending ambiguous, it was straightforward, gave some needed closure and ended in a way most viewers wanted. I’m not going to say it was perfect (as some have) because it wasn’t, but it kept with its consistent nature, and that alone was enough for a series finale. It brought back scripted event television, if only for one night, in a time when no one watches stuff live anymore and made you forget that Homeland also premiered last night (Whose idea was that by the way?). And with that, we close the book on Breaking Bad and look forward to Aaron Paul continuing to be one of the most like-able celebrities on the planet.                        

A World Without Tony Soprano

What would the world be like without Tony Soprano? Unfortunately we have found out with the passing of James Gandolfini yesterday at the too soon age of 51. It can not be understated that Gandolfini was one of the most (if not the most) influential actors ever in television history. Its a fact.

The Sopranos changed the way we watch television. A lot of television was seen as background noise for the casual viewer before David Chase’s series forced the viewer to watch intently to follow his broad storytelling. Would the show have been as good without Gandolfini as Tony Soprano? How could it? His portrayal of the depressed mob boss from North Jersey gave us the original character we always rooted for despite all of his indiscretions. Without the success of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano who knows if we would have gotten Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Don Draper or Nucky Thompson (even though he was a real guy).

Gandolfini made Tony Soprano who was in most ways a monster, a relatable human being. I can’t help but smile whenever Tony starts singing a random song, because its just so real. The depth of the character is enhanced so much by Gandolfini’s work, who also made us feel bad for an asshole with everything he could want. Tony Soprano at his core was just another guy from Jersey, trying to figure out his problems and live his life, just like Gandolfini himself. The difference being Gandolfini’s humble, calm and sometimes even shy nature compared to Tony’s violent and larger than life persona. He never chased fame, he was a man who just loved his craft.

I will never forget one time I saw Gandolfini in person, a section away from me at a Rutgers Football Game (his alma mater). Everyone noticed him as soon as he walked in, popcorn and soda in hand, his son trailing behind him. He was a hero to all of us yet could not have acted more normal, smiling and waving at all the “Jimmy!” calls before sitting in his seat. He could have probably sat in nicer seats, but that wasn’t who he was.

James Gandolfini made us care about Tony Soprano like we never cared about a television character before. We became a part of his family. Losing him is like losing a part of our family, and I truly cannot recall ever being this saddened by the death of someone I never knew, which speaks once again to his incredible relatability. I feel like I knew him personally because of all that we went through over the course of The Sopranos, his performance is that powerful and helped ushered in an entirely new era of cinema quality television. Unfortunately we will have to get used to a world without James Gandolfini…somehow, but will always remember him for his influential portrayal of one of the greatest characters of all time.

In defense of The Sopranos Finale

For anyone who needs a refresher: 

What? It’s over? Is my cable out? That can’t be the end.

These are just a few of the thoughts that went through millions of fans’ minds as they watched the series finale of The Sopranos on HBO on June 10th, 2007. I was one of them. I had not seen all of The Sopranos at the time (my parents understandably would not let me) but it was too big of an event to miss. My family and I sat down together to watch it, and even though I did not fully understand the events leading up to the ending, I will never forget the first time I watched the final scene.

Tony’s worries are over. The war between the families has ceased and his biggest enemy, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) will be having his closed casket funeral in the coming days. He has nothing to worry about right? Then why is he so uneasy? The door rings as customers enter, and the ring catches Tony’s attention and eyesight every time. The tension of the scene is incredible. It does not matter who enters everyone is a threat. Who knew that Don’t Stop Believing could feel so menacing? As Tony, Carmella and AJ sit and talk Tony’s attention is continuously elsewhere. Why does that guy keep looking over? Why is that couple talking so loud? Who are the thug looking guys coming into a family restaurant? The brilliance of this last scene cannot be understated. It even includes two separate references to the two different times that Tony has been shot during the series; the two times he was closest to death. These references are subtle without throwing it right into the viewer’s face. The man who keeps looking over is wearing a Member’s Only jacket, which would be fashionable if it were 1987. However, some Soprano’s fans will remember “Member’s Only” is also the name of the episode in which Tony’s Uncle Junior shoots him, leading to Tony’s coma. Also, the two thug looking African Americans who walk into the restaurant could be in reference to when Tony is nearly killed by two similarly dressed African Americans in the episode “Isabella.” While there are plenty of other shots of people in the restaurant, these are the two that Tony seems to be focused on the most. Meadow finally gets to the restaurant and cannot seem to parallel park her car, which is by far the most intense parallel parking scene of all time (clearly something to be proud of). The Member’s Only guy trudges past the table and goes to the bathroom. Oh no, she’s going to walk in just as the guy comes out of the bathroom and shoots Tony. That’s what I was thinking, as I realized I cared about these characters despite seeing very few episodes. One last ring of the door, one last look up from Tony, and one last Don’t Stop from Journey and…its over. No gunshot, no arrest, it was simply over.

What would you have preferred? Would you have wanted Tony to be shot in the back of the head with his family sitting there followed with a fade to black? Would you have wanted Tony on trial or in an orange jumpsuit behind bars? The ambiguous ending is not a “cop out” as many would argue. Instead it reinforces exactly what the entire series is all about. The mob has its advantages, and has been glorified for years by film, however it is not as glamorous as The Godfather might have you believe. Tony Soprano always gets what he wants; however he is never happy, in fact he is continually depressed. Maybe this business is not what its all hyped up to be. Tony has won; his “associates” have finally disposed of Phil Leotardo, however he cannot sit still. Tony knows for the rest of his life, he will be constantly looking over his shoulder; there is nowhere he can hide. Does it really matter if he died right then and there in the diner as the screen abruptly went black? No, it’s the tension of the scene and his uncomfortable demeanor that are important, Tony will not feel completely safe ever again, even at dinner with his family.

The ending is still debated on to this day, which in my opinion is exactly what David Chase wanted. Whether good or bad reviews people are still talking about it, over five years later, what more could you ask for from a finale of a landmark show? The finale may have left a lot of viewers feeling underwhelmed, however, would those same viewers still think and ask question about the show had it ended in a clearer fashion? No, they probably would have just panned it and been done with it.

The defense rests.