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02.25.09

meth

LAST WEEK CANADA woke up to the possibility that, with a recession in effect, discretionary incomes dropping and budgets running deficits in order to provide less of basic services, the nation's federal broadcast regulatory agency had decided that now would be a good time to exercise a stimulus plan of sorts for online content. The news was met with what I can only describe as a bowel-cramping grimace from coast to coast, like someone had decided to complain about their ingrown toenail in the aftermath of a passenger plane loaded with pre-schoolers crashing into a downtown city block.

The timing was awful, but that didn't mean that preparations weren't painstakingly made. The CRTC obviously had the support of creative guilds like the Writer's Guild of Canada, and had enlisted local performers like comic Colin Mochrie to provide the public face of this newly-hatched campaign. The groaning but well-oiled rhetoric had been assembled, which allowed someone like CRTC chair Konrad Von Finckenstein (note to U.S. and international readers: yes, a real person, and not a name cooked up by a third-rate sketch comedy troupe) to tell a national newspaper that "we must respect the principles of openness and individual choice that govern the Internet, while maintaining access to, and for, Canadian stories, opinions and ideas."

Whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean.

I won't insult anyone's intelligence by pointing out how absurd this "automobiles unfair - subsidize horses" scheme is - after all, the CRTC itself is doing a fine job of that. After the completely sensible howls of protest, the CRTC and its enablers seem to have taken their medicine show underground and - one fears - into the halls of government, the better to nurture the unholy idea into its chrysalis stage. While it skulks in the shadows, it's likely that the only people following its progress will be the cable companies who'll be obligated to pay for it - and pass the costs on to their customers, naturally - and that the scheme's nursemaids are relying on the rest of us to remain in our usual state of blithe indifference to the workings of unelected bureaucracies.

I am not the best person to comment on the idiocy of the CRTC's plan, but a trip to my blogroll will take you to someone who's far more qualified. I will, however, be trying to keep track of this absurdity and shine some light on it whenever it emerged into plain sight. I will however, say that this would be the absolute zenith of imbecilic, extortionary, technologically-illiterate initiatives in the history of this country's witless, spoiled, grasping cultural bureaucracy if there weren't literally decades of similarly brain-dead, technologically-tone deaf schemes in the past.

I keep reading about demands for a "culture czar" to be added to President Obama's Romanov dynasty of cabinet tsaristi, and can't help but wonder why anyone would want to proceed down that path as long as they have Canada's woeful example so close at hand. To my American readers, I can only ask you to imagine a vast cultural bureaucracy, with everything - PBS, the NEA, the FCC, Hollywood (I'm completely serious) and much of the funding of magazines, book publishing, music recording and videos (once again - I'm not exaggerating) and television production in some way beholden to federal, provincial and even municipal agencies and grant organizations.

One vast, interlocking bureaucracy rife with politics, in-fighting, fashionable agendas and government-mandated policies inspired by the language of "human rights." Is it any wonder that the U.S. was making The Wizard Of Oz thirty years before Canada finally developed the capability to make low-budget feature films that looked quaint and cramped the day they were screened? It's the sort of country that takes a generation to produce a war film, and still hasn't mastered the skill set necessary to make a romantic comedy. We are, in every sense of the term, culturally fucked - do you really want to take a trip to this vale of tears?

I'm ranting. Long story short: government-funded content on the internet grotesquely shit-for-brains idea. Canada still incredibly lame excuse for a country. More to follow.

---

THE OSCARS. I really don't have much to say. They seemed smaller, and far less interesting this year, but mostly because I'd have a hard time imagining a less inspiring group of films being nominated. I watched for as long as it took for Wall-E to win, after which the boring got too much too bear, and we ended up watching some documentaries I'd downloaded. Really, though, I can't put my feelings into words more eloquently than Burt Prelutsky over at Big Hollywood:

"Once again, I was reminded that the Best Song category should have been retired decades ago when Hollywood stopped producing musicals.  In the old days, Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers, Porter and Kern, competed for Oscars.  This year, two songs from Slumdog Millionaire duked it out with a song from Wall-E.  If you’re curious why three songs without a discernible melody between them would be competing, it’s because the folks in the music division of the Motion Picture Academy insist on retaining the category.  You would have thought that embarrassment would have trumped professional ego back in 2006 when the Oscar went to 'It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,' but that’s only because you don’t realize how impossible it is to embarrass Hollywood."

---

THE PILOT EPISODE OF BREAKING BAD begins with a pair of pants - Dockers, as far as I can tell - billowing down against a blue sky, followed by a speeding RV roaring into the frame and over the trousers as it careens down a desert road. It's scored to the sort of thumping drum samples that have become the post-millenial equivalent to the antic mountain banjo breakdowns or orgiastic explosions of jazz that once signalled mayhem with a comic tinge.

We see Bryan Cranston behind the wheel of the RV, a gas mask on his face, while another body sporting a gas mask slumps in the passenger seat and two bodies roll around the cabin amidst breaking glass. Cranston crashes the Winnebago into a roadside gully, exits the vehicle wearing a shirt and underpants - the airborne Dockers in the first shot were his, apparently - rips off the mask and stands astride the road with a massive handgun pointing at the sirens pursuing him. It's quite an overture, and you hope that the rest of the show - and the series beyond - will measure up.

Breaking Bad was created by Vince Gilligan, a veteran of the Chris Carter universe (The X-Files, Harsh Realm, The Lone Gunmen) who thankfully has brought no apparent abiding interest in the supernatural or conspiracy theory to the show. The series hit the air with two handicaps, the first being Mad Men, AMC's other, much more heavily-publicized original production, which seemed to hog all the network's oxygen, the second being the Hollywood writer's strike, which truncated the show's debut season to a mere UK-proportioned seven episodes.



Cranston plays Walter White, a high school science teacher cursed with an inexcusably milquetoast name and a midlife crisis ramping up to first gear, who's just learned that inoperable lung cancer has just made midlife the likely end of the line. He has a lovely wife (Anna Gunn - Martha from Deadwood,) a teenaged son apparently only mildly inconvenienced by cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte, who actually has c.p.) and a baby on the way. He's also saddled with the usual lower middle class debt and a strong sense of responsibility that persuades him to turn to crime.

The show is set in New Mexico, in the midst of the sort of crystal meth epidemic that's become background noise in too many municipalities, and a lightning round of coincidences - a ride along on a meth lab bust with his DEA agent brother-in-law, a former student turned meth dealer - convinces Walt that his best chance to leave money for his family is to risk the tiny remaining span of his liberty by cooking meth.

Cranston is the key to the show, and anyone whose acquaintance with the actor is limited to his years as the histrionic Hal on Malcolm In The Middle will be pleasantly surprised by how he makes Walt so much more than merely pitiable. It's no small feat - a persistent cough quickly turns into blackout-inducing hacking, even before the chemo alternately renders him either pale or livid. Walt spends much of the first few episodes in his underwear or less, and Cranston and Gilligan do their level best to let us feel the debilitating course of the man's illness and its treatment, right down to the fatigue and gruesomely-hued urine.

It's amazing the show survived its truncated first season, never mind got renewed, when you compare its general tone to that of, say, Mad Men. Moving from one to the other, you leave a world of cool, retro interiors and men and women impeccably put together whether at home or at the office for the sun-bleached landscape in and around Albuquerque, Walt with his bristly little moustache and suede Wallabees, and scenes that play out in the cave-like RV where he cooks his meth or his high school science classroom. Gilligan doesn't offer much in the way of visual panache, and combined with the palpable suffering Walt goes through over the first season's seven hours, you have to lean in hard to enjoy the particular, character-derived pleasures of Breaking Bad.

Sometimes you get the feeling that Gilligan is revelling in your discomfort, in scenes such as the one where Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul,) his meth-dealing partner, are trying to dispose of the body of Jesse's former partner. Walt suggests dissolving the corpse in acid, but Jesse ignores his instructions to do it in a specific kind of plastic tub, which leads to the bathtub in Jesse's house collapsing into a hallway below, along with a cascade of simmering, gelatinous goo.



The real pleasure of the show is watching Cranston's Walt discover a resilience and even anger he didn't know he had, as he faces off against the drug industry's badasses and psychopaths armed only with his scientific prowess - we learn, a few episodes in, that Walt could have been rich and renowned if he'd stayed in research - and what little remains of his sense of decency. "No more violence," he tells Jesse, as the first season picks up momentum in episode 6. "No bloodshed - no matter what happens." How long he'll be able to stick to this resolution is a question likely to occupy season two when it begins early next month.

There is, to be sure, some slack writing in the show. Gilligan seems unsure how to handle Anna Gunn as Walt's wife; her cluelessness starts to seem a bit dim a few episodes in, and he unerringly gives her lines that indicate little more than a mediocre mind wrapped around a bunch of trite suburban attitudes, and her purpose in the show often seems like little more than a conduit to Walt's principal tormentors - her status-obsessed, klepto sister (Betsy Brandt) and Hank, her vulgar but relentless DEA agent husband (Dean Norris.)

One scene in particular comes off as too easy, and hurts the show all the more for being so pivotal. Escaping his wife's baby shower, Walt ends up on the patio with Hank, sharing a cigar and some scotch and talking about what Hank does for a living. Hank tries prick some of Hank's self-righteousness by pointing out that the scotch in their glasses would have been as illegal as meth under Prohibition, and Hank lets himself play along, recalling that meth was once a legal, over-the-counter drug.

There's a lot wrong with the war on drugs, but reducing it to this simple rhetorical game of equivalence feels like a cop out. One hopes that Gilligan will have a bit more room to explore what's really at stake with drug abuse and the criminal industry that profits from it in a longer second season, and avoids this sort of writers' set piece of a scene, with its showy display of historical erudition and overbuffed ambiguity.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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