Friday, July 17, 2009

Breaking the Mold

I don’t have cable, but I recently got to watch the two latest episodes of AMC’s hit show, Breaking Bad by watching them online. First of all, I think AMC should look into Hulu, which is where I’m doing most of my TV watching these days. For me, it’s about scheduling more than anything. I’m sorry, but TV has never been a priority. I’m willing to watch your shows and the ads that come with them, but only during those times I feel like it. Anyway I digress.

I loved the first season, and couldn’t wait for more. Watching the second season, it looks like I can expect to get a similar kick out of the new episodes. There’s a strong element of suspense, and while normally the “fish-out-of-water” theme is cliché, the characters here are convincingly out of their depth in ways that make sense and take it beyond a mere gimmick. It really does an outstanding job of storytelling.

I get a special kick out of watching it. Partly it’s the familiarity of the language and ideas, and the fantastic aspect of it. Take for example the use of hydrofluoric acid to dispose of a body. I would absolutely want nothing to do with the large amounts of HF used in real life, but it was an interesting thing to sort of fantasize about. Not that I fantasize about disposing of bodies in acid (much). It also sort of got me interested in the history of meth-manufacture to an extent that worries my friends a little. I won’t start making it of course, because I live in an apartment and I don’t want to lose my security deposit. Or get arrested. What I was surprised to hear was that the Hell’s Angels did their methamphetamine production as a near total synthesis.

What this means is that they didn’t go out and buy Sudafed, which is very close to the structure for methamphetamine (including the “newer” Sudafed), but they actually went through the process of making it using more basic chemical components. I don’t know whether they were actually knowledgeable of theory, but it’s interesting to think about motorcycle gang chemists.

It’s great to have a protagonist that’s a nerd, and someone who is actually passionate about science t’boot. While selling drugs isn’t exactly noble,  we understand the motivations. All too often the scientist is part of the group of evildoers, the mastermind of some dastardly plot. Then Superman swoops in and punches his kidneys out. Even in other fiction where science isn’t involved, the nerds aren’t really there to save the day. Take the Harry Potter novels as an example. Harry Potter isn’t the best wizard in the group, or the most knowledgeable. Really Hermione should be doing all the ass-kicking, all Harry has going for him is luck of the deus ex machina variety and a sidekick who’s mostly comic relief. Fortunately, Breaking Bad rises above that tradition.

Sure, there are elements of the story that need work. Especially the son, who is really underdeveloped as a character, and doesn’t seem to serve much purpose. What Breaking Bad really has going for it though, besides a kick-ass premise, excellent acting, and a mastery of suspense, is that we’re given a main character that we actually give a damn about. At it’s core it’s really the time honored story of the working stiff who has to take drastic measures to save his family.

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