So continuing my efforts to revisit some of my old topics, I’m going to be talking about TV writing; specifically how why TV series often fall apart in their final seasons. I mean we’ve all seen beloved shows slowly turn into an undead zombified version of the series we’ve watched for years, sometimes this only happens in that final season or sometimes it happens right off the bat moving from season 1 to 2. My previous post on this subject focused on Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives as examples of shows becoming unrecognizable slop after a few seasons, but for the sake of fairness I’m going to use some shows that I actually enjoyed this time around.
Let’s take House for example, one of my favorite shows that is right now going through the final agonizing episodes of a series finale that should have come years earlier. House was a fascinating character, which isn’t hard to do when you basically make a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes, but about midway through the series around season 5-6, the show looked like it might be wrapping up and House was going to evolve as a character, bringing his character arc to a satisfactory resolution. House begins hallucinating and is committed to a mental institution at the end of season 5, where the writers have a real chance to transform House and have his character reform over the course of the season. House had remained more or less a completely static character for most of the series, and like most TV shows, when he did occasionally break from his usual character (like when he connects with an autistic boy or when he helps a rape victim confront her emotions) it never lasts beyond that single episode. House may change over the course of a single episode, but by the next episode everything was back to normal. Here, however, there was a real chance to have the character evolve.
And for a while he does. He resists psychological counseling at first,
but eventually House confronts the fact that he has a problem and finally begins getting counseling with his doctor. He returns to work, kicks his Vicodin habit and he moves in with his best friend Wilson forcing House out of his perpetual isolation. By the end of season 6, House is actually devastated by the loss of a patient. Now he had lost patients before, and while he was always upset about that, it was more he was upset he couldn’t piece together the puzzle. It always bothered him intellectually, but Hannah’s death in season 6 emotionally traumatizes House, which is a huge step forward for him. He also finally confronts the fact that his refusal to cut off his leg was a mistake, and keeping a crippled mangled leg wasn’t worth the pain it brought him. For six years he held firm to the belief that he was right to not amputate, but finally he faces the truth and begins to move on.That’s what good characters do, they grow and change over the course of the story, that’s what keeps us interested in them.
Season 7 is where this show should have ended because this is where the character arc really ends. After pursuing a relationship with Cuddy, culminating in House ramming a car through her house in a fit of rage, House goes off to a nice tropical island where he seems to finally be at peace. Really, I think they could have given us a little epilogue there on the island, and we could have called the series good. He’d evolved into a reasonably well-adjusted person, still acerbic and brilliant but no longer socially and emotionally crippled, and in pursuing a relationship with Cuddy he finally reached out to someone. Even if it hadn’t ended in marriage, the fact he pursued the relationship at all was a huge step, especially after dancing around it for seven years.
But now here we are in Season 8 because Fox just refused to let House go off into that good night with his dignity intact. Oh sure, Season 8 started off okay with House in prison, but with each episode he turned more and more into a caricature. He’s back to a pill popping, socially inept and emotionally troubled man-child. They completely reset him. Probably because they were afraid a new and improved House wouldn’t get the viewers they wanted. Now House is just a marionette, going through the motions but so wooden and repetitively that the audience can practically see the strings coming out of Hugh Laurie’s body. Instead of a series finale where we could tearfully wave goodbye to House, we’re going to be stuck watching the show slowly wither away, until the final episode comes as a complete relief because at least the poor thing’s suffering is over.
That’s the problem with writing for TV. With any other medium, be it book, movie or game, the writers go into the story knowing when and where it will end. They can plot out the entire story and the characters from beginning to end. Not so with TV, where the characters and plots need to stay more or less static because you never know if your story is going to last only a single season or be stretched out for ten years. This isn’t just true today, either, this has always been the case with TV writing. My mother introduced me to Golden Girls, a wonderful TV series from the 80s. By the final season, every single character was a cipher characterized by a single trait. That’s how TV characters have always ended up.
But I think things are changing…
Meet Walter White:
Yeah, this looks like one dull character doesn’t he? Some average, everyday family man working as a chemistry teacher in some backwater town in the middle of nowhere. Why should anyone care about this nobody? Am I right?
No, I’m not right, not at all. Walter White is/was the most interesting character on TV, because he’s a good character. He changes over the course of the series, just like the characters in a book or movie would. Walter White is proof that you can have a deep dynamic character in a TV show and not only have that show be good, but be even better than most other shows could ever hope to be. If you haven’t seen this amazing series, you need to correct that problem right now. I know, it’s a problem you didn’t even know you had, I was the same way. But there’s hope! The first three seasons of Breaking Bad are on DVD and streaming on Netflix! [Hi AMC, you can just make that check out to cash, thanks!] Also, I’m about to spoil this show as well, so if you haven’t seen it, you should probably wait until next week’s post!
It’s a great show though and let me show you why.
He starts off as a high school chemistry teacher, and I think we’ve all had a teacher like him in school. Somewhat shy, a bit unsure of himself, and more than a bit dull. However, when he’s talking about science (or whatever subject your particular teacher taught) he gets incredibly excited, his eyes and voice coming to life as he describes his passion. Unfortunately, also like most teachers, Walter’s students never seem to share his passion. His student’s constantly interrupt, most of them don’t even pay attention, and Walter just goes with the flow for the most part. Also like most teachers, he doesn’t make enough money as a teacher alone, so he has a second job at a car wash and is forced to work for a man with eyebrows so bushy they often scare small children.
I think Dante listed that as the 7th circle of hell didn’t he? Despite only being the cashier at the car wash, mister bushy eyebrows routinely has him wash cars as well. Walter never stands up to him, but just quietly slinks away to clean cars. That’s Walter White, a meek little man who has let his ambitions and dreams slowly wither away to nothing leading a dull plodding life. And then he gets cancer. Inoperable Lung Cancer. A death sentence in other words.
He has no assets to leave his family, his pension as a teacher wouldn’t cover jack or shit, and he faces the prospect of dying as a complete failure (at least in his own eyes). He has one thing going for him though, he’s a brilliant chemist. Meth production and distribution is a multi-billion dollar industry, and Walter decides he wants in on some of that action. However, Walter isn’t a criminal kingpin and doesn’t know how to distribute the meth without getting got. So he recruits an old, failed student of his: Jesse Pinkman. And our adventures begin.
First of all, at the beginning of the series, Walter insists on keeping stuff clean. His meth will be a pure product, refusing to use the additives that end up killing people (well killing them faster anyway, it’s still meth after all). He doesn’t want to become the Mexican Cartel that tortures and murders as easily as most people breathe, “No rough stuff” as Walter says. Well after a series of spectacularly hilarious screw ups, Walter ends up with one dead body and a critically injured drug dealer in a basement. Walter knows that the drug dealer, not being the most understanding of people, will probably kill them if they allow him to go free…
However, that’s exactly what he is planning to do…he can’t bring himself to kill a human being in cold blood. He’s just about ready to go downstairs and let the guy go, when he notices that a blade-shaped piece of ceramic plate that had been broken in the basement earlier, is missing. The drug dealer is planning to knife him the moment Walter let’s him go…and then this happens:
You can skip to 4:05 if you want to just skip to the killing part (you evil bastard)
Walter cries and begs for forgiveness even as he’s slowly choking the life out of the drug dealer…
With any typical TV show, Walter would always be like this, every time he was forced to kill people he would break down, because most TV executives would say “hey, people don’t want to follow a monster around!” and eventually the audience would get tired of Walter’s whinging. For instance, to drag up a video game again, Lara Croft is supposed to be a archaeologist of sorts, and in many games when she’s forced to kill someone she acts sad or horrified at her actions. That’s fine at the start, but after she’s shot and killed the 90th bad guy, it gets a bit hard to swallow. Breaking Bad avoids this common mistake by allowing Walter’s character to evolve…adapting to his role as a criminal by making killing even easier for him. Compare that above video to this:
Yeah, that’s Walter in Season 3. He plows into a couple of gang members, and then without a moment’s hesitation, puts a bullet through the head of the second gang member as he lays on the ground in agony. That is a huge difference in the character we saw in Season 1, and that’s what makes this series great. We have gotten to see Walter turn from a shy and polite chemistry teacher, into a hardened criminal able to kill people without a second thought. It’s brilliant. Even in movies it’s rare that we get to see a character descend into darkness, and even then, we don’t get to see it in this amount of detail. The two videos I showed you are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but between seasons 1 and 3, the audience gets to see Walter turn into the hardened killer you see in the second video. We see the small steps he takes, beating up a couple meth-heads for stealing from him, arranging a fixer to help Jesse after his girlfriend OD’s. Then, wanting to make more money, he goes into business with a high level drug dealer and watches as that same drug dealer literally beats a man to death with his bare hands. We see every small deliberate step he takes, until he becomes a finely honed predator ready to do whatever is necessary to survive. He even begins to enjoy his new found power:
That look Walter gives him would make a god damn Navy Seal back off.
And this is how he describes himself to his wife:
“I AM the danger[…]I’m the one who knocks!” How badass is that?
And it’s not just Walter either…every single character in this series is important, every single one has a story, every single one of them is alive. In so many shows the supporting cast are all just so much background noise, usually espousing a single characteristic, just shadows on the wall for the main character play off of. Not so in this series. Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law to Walter, at first acts like your typical Dirty Harry style cop. He talks big, but when it’s time to put that big talk to the test…we see that Hank isn’t what he originally appeared to be. After being forced to shoot and kill a suspect, Hank goes into a deep depression and begins suffering panic attacks. This is compounded when he’s witness to a bombing that tears apart fellow DEA agents right in front of him, and Hank is forced to use his belt to tourniquet a man whose leg has been blow off, leaving only half a thigh.
And in one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Jesse Pinkman comes to understand what he is:
Even the bad guys in this film have character though. Gustavo Fring, who becomes the main villain in the later seasons, is so well characterized you begin to sympathize with him despite that fact the guy is a heartless killer.
So take note, TV Execs out there. This is how you make a compelling TV show. You let the characters live and breathe, allow them to grow and change throughout the show, and don’t hamstring them by forcing them to follow the same routine with each episode.
Yeah you did, Walter.