Red-State shows: Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights

We’ve been watching two Red-State t.v. shows, Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights. In the recent NYT Magazine piece about Breaking Bad and its show-runner Vince Gilligan, the author pointed out that although BB has an audience as big at Mad Men‘s, it’s less visible than that show in the media, perhaps because whereas it’s a #1 show in Santa Fe/Albuquerque (where it takes place), Memphis, and Kansas City, it’s not even top ten in NYC and L.A. E.g., it’s a red-state show. I had not thought of it quite that way, but the contrast with Man Men especially brings out the contrast: Mad Men is about sophisticated NYC ad agency execs, BB is about Walt, a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, dying of cancer and selling meth, ostensibly to leave his family a financial cushion (since of course his paltry teacher salary would not provide that). Other main characters include Walt’s brother-in-law, a D.E.A. agent, and their two suburban wives (Walt’s wife goes back to work as an accountant for a small company in season three). No cultural elites to be found, with the exception that proves the rule of Walt’s old college buddy and his wife who are now wealthy and culturally sophisticated scientists and seem to exist in a different world. Their brief appearance in the show only underlines that otherwise, BB takes place in a world of middle-class (or below) economics and aesthetics. I doubt there will ever be “Breaking Bad yourself” Facebook apps to make yourself look like a ravaged Bryan Cranston (as there is for Mad Men).

We’re in the third season now (on DVD; season 4 just started), and I think the show has improved. The first season’s pilot began by throwing you into a shocking and surreal scene (of Walt and his meth-cooking partner, his former high school student, fleeing the cops in their RV on the highway), but that season settles into an in-some-ways predictable rhythm, exploring the ironies as Walt maintains his suburban life and job while also secretly cooking and dealing meth. It kind of seemed like a masculine version of Weeds with some of the same themes of bland suburbia and an illicit underworld beneath it, and an emphasis on life in recessionary times, a head of the household doing what she or he needs to do to maintain the home. But as the show has gone on, it’s become increasingly unpredictable, suspenseful, and sometimes almost David Lynchian in its everyday surrealism. In season three the Twins, two murderous Mexican assassins, are maybe a bit much… (they reminded me a little of the Russian giant impervious to pain in the Stieg Larsson novels). But in this season the show has reminded me more of the Sopranos, with more of a feeling that you don’t know where the show is going; and Bryan Cranston has definitely developed some Tony Soprano-like gravitas and moral ambiguity.

Then we also started watching Friday Night Lights (first season!). A few friends (and many critics) have been recommending it for years. This one is totally Red-State. Small West Texas town obsessed with high-school football; many characters devoutly Christian; big emphasis on the positive values of teamwork and belief in oneself and one’s teammates; as Sarah commented, a high school that seems almost entirely dedicated to producing male jocks and sexy women (so far there is next to no reference to classes or academic work). But, it’s really good… very gripping, and one of us went into this with zero interest in football, the other (me) quite little. Maybe part of what’s so good about it is what made ER so gripping, a fictional immersion in a very challenging and difficult job that brings a diverse group of characters together in a common obsession. Of course it’s disturbing (to me) that high-school football bears that weight, but once you accept the given that these students and the coaches are engaged in an activity of immense public significance with a lot at stake, with possibilities for heroism, triumph, utter failure, shame, life-transforming injury, it creates a world of vividly meaningful drama which you don’t get in your typical show. There are, as with ER, soap-opera elements too, but the center of gravity is the team, the games and the season. There’s also a pathos in the viewer’s potential realization that the games are not in fact of such true significance… who really cares in the end if the Panthers win the season? (Well, it definitely matters for the coach, one of the main characters, who will lose his job if they don’t win.)  But that pathos becomes part of the meaning — the sense that they’re all pouring their hearts and lives into this game, a questionable fiction into which so much is invested.

I’m curious to see how it develops and to what degree, for example, the show expects a viewer who “agrees” with the importance of high school football, as opposed to one (like me) who wonders whether it’s a great idea for the entire town to focus obsessively on the job performance of 16 year old kids.

One minor note — the show has some basic continuity problems so far.  The fill-in quarterback Matt Saracen gets beaten up badly enough to go to the hospital, then two days or so later has no marks on his face; the player with a spinal injury cannot yet even more his fingers; he has a breakthrough where he moves his hands for the first time, then a day or two later is wheeling himself around in a chair.  (I assume this is unrealistic.)

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