Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Spectacular Now is a coming-of-age film that probes a little deeper

Adolescence has a way of magnifying the impact of everything.  It's easy to feel like there's never been anything before this period or anything after it.  At least that's the case with Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the 18-year old protagonist of James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now.  The film derives its title from Sutter's worldview -- he always makes a point of trying to "live in the now," goofing around whenever the opportunity presents itself, and even when it doesn't.  The problem with the present is that it's a bounded time frame, and choosing to focus on it is almost like going in circles.  And that's where Sutter finds himself during his senior year of high school, stuck in place while everyone around him is moving forward.   

After a night of aimless partying, Sutter ends up passed out on the lawn of Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a meek girl who goes to his school.  Although he wasn't even previously aware of Aimee's existence, and his big, fun-loving personality stands in direct contrast with hers, the two form an instant and unlikely bond.  It's Teller and Woodley's film, and their performances play off each other well, selling the chemistry between Sutter and Aimee.  Woodley in particular is revelatory -- Aimee's full of inhibitions and nervous energy, and Woodley exhibits that with every timid laugh and unfinished sentence.  The dialogue seems improvised at times, loaded with small asides and characters stumbling over each other in a naturalistic way that feels more like real human conversation.  Sutter and Aimee's love story is honest and earnest, but also colored by the individual troubles that exist within their lives.  When the two come together, it's like two chemicals mixing, and their relationship is the catalyst that drives them to take action and change the way that they live their lives.  As much as Sutter wants to approach the world with no plan whatsoever, his feelings for Aimee develop, forcing him to realize he can't be so blase about everything.

Ponsoldt's directorial style tends to be very raw and low-key, as seen in debut film, Smashed.  Characters have wrinkles and bags under their eyes, wear little-to-no makeup, and sport normal clothes.  The Spectacular Now continues this trend, but there's a bit more of an impressionistic tone to this one, feeling like it exists out of time and place.  It's the type of film that aims to overtake you, and when it does near the middle of the film, there's this magic to seeing everything just click.  The nostalgic haze, acute observations, and simple beauty weaves with every fiber of your being, and you're as stuck in the moment as the protagonists are.

But like all of the fleeting emotions that come with adolescence, that feeling leaves just as soon as it comes.  Overall, the film feels a bit lopsided, eventually venturing into a subplot about Sutter's estranged father (Kyle Chandler) that produces mixed results.  It's a storyline that's in tune with the central theme of the movie -- much like Sutter lives in the now because he's afraid of the future, his father does so because he wants to forget the past -- but it completely throws off the film's rhythm.  The story rushes towards some kind of awakening, but it's saved by the fact that it's not about concluding things.  Like everybody at this point in their lives, Sutter isn't fully formed yet, and life is only just beginning for him.  The road may be filled with uncertainty, but he learns that it may be worth travelling anyway.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen's chronicle of an unraveling woman

Blue Jasmine opens with its titular character on a plane, nattering on about her life to a completely uninterested stranger.  That's pretty much Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) in a nutshell -- spilling her troubles onto the world, oblivious to the way she does or doesn't affect it.  When we meet Jasmine, it's after her ex-husband has just orchestrated some sort of fraudulent financial scheme, which left him jailed and her penniless and crawling to the door of her semi-estranged, adopted sister (Sally Hawkins).  Her sister lives at a standard that Jasmine is less accustomed to, and you can easily see the differences between them in terms of clothes, posture, and general demeanor.  Much of the narrative drive comes from exploring these differences, as Jasmine tries to put herself back together and ascend past this style of living that she feels is beneath her.  If you look at it a certain way, the film functions as a critique of the rich and privileged, and just how much they live outside of reality.  Jasmine is clearly unequipped to go through life without the cushion of luxury, lacking any skills -- unable to even work a computer -- or the patience to deal with people she thinks of as plebeians.

But writer/director Woody Allen is less interested in those blanket observations and more in Jasmine, singularly focusing on how her actions sabotage herself and those around her.  It's a character study first, and a terrific one at that -- Allen meticulously shades Jasmine, revealing the jumbled tower of tics and anxieties that she's constructed out of.  The film seamlessly blends present-day scenes of her life in shambles with flashbacks of how she got there, and it's a divide that Jasmine can't fully comprehend either.  So steadfast is she in regaining the comforts of her past that she idly recites old thoughts and conversations, ignoring the corporeal and unsettled onlookers in front of her to ruminate on the old ghosts she's haunted by.  The character is wonderfully written, but it's Blanchett's performance that steals the show here.  Jasmine is a woman with a slackening grip on the thread that holds every bit of her carefully coiffed facade together, and the way she slowly just wilts over the course of the film is something to behold.  She's like one giant, exposed nerve, and Blanchett gives one of the best performances of the year in the process of bringing her to life.

With so many flashbacks sewn into the film, it makes some of the very expository dialogue feel even more superfluous and clunky.  Even when considering the distant nature of Jasmine's relationship with her sister, it still feels like some of their conversations only happen for the sake of the audience.    Yet it's hard to get too worked up over that when everything else in the film is so perfectly pitched.  This is Woody Allen's first pure drama in a while, but there's no rust to be found on him.  Blue Jasmine is a rich portrait of a woman who gets the rug pulled out from under her life, and can't quite figure out how to find her footing again.

Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris" is another boring album from a talented rapper

Television critic Todd VanDerWerff recently spoke on a podcast about one of the problems with HBO's The Newsroom.  He stated that Aaron Sorkin's signature fast-paced dialogue is one of those things that works perfectly when he's at the top of his game, but if he's just slightly off, it can sound terrible.  Over the past few days, I've been trying to figure out why I haven't been as hot on Doris as the rest of the critical community seems to be, and in a way, I have a similar opinion of Earl Sweatshirt's rapping that Todd VanDerWerff has with Aaron Sorkin's writing.  There's no question that Sweatshirt is a talented rapper -- his gift for knotty verses full of internal rhymes and assonance has few equals.  Yet it's a double-edged sword, and on Doris, his greatest gift also becomes the source of my biggest complaints.

To say that the album is low-energy would be the understatement of the year.  He's always had a drowsy style, but here his rapping is downright soporific.  His first mixtape, 2010's brazen Earl, was thrilling, and it introduced the world to his characteristically dizzying flow, but his spiraling lyrics just feel like white noise on Doris.  I'm happy that he's moved past rapping about raping and killing, but at least there was some sort of consistency to his first mixtape.  Is Doris even about anything?  It's fun falling down the rabbit hole of his lyrics, but ultimately unsatisfying when you realize that you're right where you started.  Basically, this album is the rap equivalent of a band whose excessive soloing gets in the way of actually being, you know, tuneful.  I'm just not sure there's anything to be found in Earl's apathetic mumbling, especially when the best rap albums of the year (Acid Rap, Run the Jewels, Yeezus) are works of such fiery passion.

It's not like the album is completely devoid of merit though.  He's still capable of coming up with tongue-twisting lines like "I'm as pissed as Rick Ross's fifth sip off his sixth lager."  And as much as people have turned on Tyler, the Creator; it's clear that he has the best understanding of Earl's strengths, because the two songs that he produced end up being two of the most assured on the album.  In general, he's more comfortable when falling back on old habits -- "Hive" is excellent because it recalls the buzzy low-end of yore, while "Centurion" has some vivid storytelling that's otherwise lacking on the album.  At the end of the day, Doris is a collection of individually successful parts that don't mix together very well.  Most of all, I'm worried that he just can't sustain himself for more than 30 minutes (the album clocks in at 44 minutes, 19 minutes more than his first).  Maybe next time he can make his sound less monochromatic and cut out some weak Domo Genesis verses, and he could have a killer album on his hands.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Late to the Party #5: The Weakerthans

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

It seems like eventually, almost every person reaches a point where they stop seeking out new music and just keep going back to the what they're familiar with.  I don't think the time has come for me to stop searching for new music, but I sometimes do wonder whether the peak era of music has already come and gone for me.   There's still a wide array of music out there that I like, but most of my favorite bands are ones I started listening to in middle or high school, and it's rare that I get excited about a new band in the same way I did back then.  Is it just that I'm older and less inclined to be enthusiastic or that indie rock is genuinely not as good as it used to be back in the mid-2000s?  Well The Weakerthans serve as the perfect experiment for testing out this question.  Although they put out their first album in  1997, their most popular album, Reconstruction Site was released in 2003, right around the time I was starting to branch out from solely listening to rap music.  I'd always heard of the band, but somehow I just never got around to listening to them, which is especially strange given my love for other Canadian indie rock bands that were exploding around the same time.

Recently, I finally dove deep into their catalog, and found myself regretting going so long without having checked them out.  Right from the first couple of chords, I was amazed that despite never having listened to them in middle school, I was still hit with waves of nostalgia for that time period.  Their albums, particularly Reconstruction Site, just feel like adolescence.  Part of it comes from the level of earnestness in lead singer John K. Samson's lyrics, which are sung in a nasal voice that rests somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Colin Meloy.  Much like those two, he writes with eyes wide and heart exposed.  This style can often induce cringes, like looking back at an old diary, yet Samson avoids that pitfall because his lyrics have genuine humor and brains behind them.  There's a real emotional acuity to songs like "Letter of Resignation" and "Night Windows" that you don't get in other bands who go straight for the soft spots.

Another quality that Samson shares with Colin Meloy is that his lyrics are filled with dense allusions to history, mythology, art, and everything else under the sun.  Take "Without Mythologies" on Left & Leaving, which mixes several Greek myths together to paint a portrait of a dissolved relationship.  To use just one myth would slightly elevate the song above its well-trodden terrain, but the mix of metaphors serve to reflect the speaker's frazzled desire to piece things together again.  There's a deep sense of unrest in many of The Weakerthans' songs, most notably regarding place.  Lonely street corner pamphleteers, put-out businessmen, and lovelorn bus drivers inhabit their tunes, and listening to an album of theirs feels like navigating a restless world full of those who exist on the most solitary fringes of society.  Samson and the rest of the band hail from Winnipeg, and their songs remind me of Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg in the way they describe the everyday grind of the province with equal amounts of longing and loathing.  The sarcastically titled "One Great City!" wraps up this conflict all in one song -- Samson closes out each verse with a defeated "I hate Winnipeg...," yet he describes the place with such tender detail nonetheless.

Samson originated in the punk band Propagandhi, and rebelliousness permeates through the sound of The Weakerthans too, especially on their debut record, Fallow.  It's at once their punkiest and folkiest album, and sometimes the restlessness doesn't mix with the sleepiness.  2000's Left & Leaving improves upon the band's formula, adding more punch to the fast songs and better construction on the midtempo numbers.  But their best album is definitely Reconstruction Site, which might be one of my favorite indie rock albums of the previous decade.  Samson's skills as a guitarist and band leader are at their peak here.  His riffs go a level beyond generic indie rock territory, and the rest of the band's interplay is better too, giving the songs a substantial boost of energy.  Many of them, like "Time's Arrow," have various instruments cascading together in all of the right ways, the band perfectly synchronized in dizzying fashion.  Some fans say that Reunion Tour (2007) is a step down in quality, but it's just as good as their other material, if not better than every album beside Reconstruction Site.  Although released only four years after Reconstruction, it feels like a greatest hits album, combining all of the classic elements of the band in one package.  There's the well-constructed catchy rock ("Sun in An Empty Room"); detailed character studies ("Elegy for Gump Worsely"); and meditations on death, illness and loss ("Hymn of the Medical Oddity," "Night Windows").

The absolute pinnacle of the band's discography is the two-song Virtute series, which starts on Reconstruction Site with "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" and continues on Reunion Tour with "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure".  Told from the perspective of a cat whose owner is severely depressed, "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" manages to use the simple impulses and thoughts of a cat to beautifully mine the complexities of the owner's malaise.  If it was the same sentiment but from a human perspective, it'd be a fine song, but the fact that it's a cat imploring her owner to be happy makes it one of the most moving and uplifting songs of the last decade.  What's more, Virtute is the name of Samson's actual cat, which gives you a little insight into why the song feels so acute and personal.  The story is picked back up on "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure," where it takes a dark turn, as she runs away from home and prowls the cold and lonely streets, eventually forgetting the sound of her owner's voice.  The ambiguity of Virtute's fate just adds more nuance to the song, allowing you to feel optimistic or bummed out by the ending depending on your mood.

It's that celebration of the downtrodden that makes The Weakerthans so special.  By spinning tales about the lonely, the weak, and the sad, they find strength in their chronicling of the smallness of everyday life.  They're the type of band who can write a song about a deaf girl ("Elegy For Elsabet") or a retired hockey player ("Elegy For Gump Worsely") and make it beautiful and wrenching.  There hasn't been a new album from them in 6 years, so we might have to assume that they're done making music together, but it'd also be just like them to brush themselves off and pull together another collection of stories from the scrappy and forgotten.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The World's End concludes The Cornetto Trilogy in fantastic fashion

If there's one word that could be used to describe Edgar Wright's films, it would probably be "kinetic."  There's a real madcap energy to his work, and part of the reason why his movies have such a cult following is because they feel like they're made by one of us gleeful geeks on the other side of the screen.  It's a quality that he's honed over the years, using increasingly tight editing to reign in all of the springs and gears on display.  Shaun of the Dead has a little bit of that -- though at times its comedy had a laidback vibe endemic of its slacker protagonists -- but Hot Fuzz ramped things up appropriately for its buddy cop spoofing.  If there's one fault in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it's that it was almost too energetic.  Its A.D.D. energy makes sense, accurately reflecting the generation that the film serves as a love letter to, but by the end you start to become numb to the experience, and the story can fall by the wayside due to its relentless forward progress.  Momentum-wise, The World's End perfects the formula, blazing along at a brisk pace and making the cuts between shots the punchline to jokes.

This sense of kineticism translates to the dialogue, which comes at a mile a minute.  Wright has a great ear for patter, and watching his conversational scenes can be just as exciting as an action setpiece in his hands, as characters ping lines back and forth to one another.  There's a bit of a Who's on First? feeling to many of the best exchanges, and the script manages to derive big laughs from this circular dialogue, peppered with all kinds of verbal curlicues.  The film's stellar cast also helps the sparkling dialogue.  We already know that Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are pros when it comes to Wright's material, but Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan round out the main cast and they're all fantastic too.  Of course, Simon Pegg is the MVP here, managing to make Gary's high-energy manchild demeanor slightly endearing instead of grating.

World's End is kinetic in the more traditional sense too.  I try to avoid trailers as much as possible in the months and weeks leading up to a film I already know that I want to see, so I knew very little about the film's plot aside from assumptions made from the title.  I knew that it film veered in an interesting way, due to some rumblings from people who saw it early in the UK, but not exactly how it would do so.  So when the gang's quest to recreate The Golden Mile -- drinking 12 pints of beer spread across 12 pubs in town -- takes a turn, it's a real surprise to behold.  The film's second act, when it transforms into a full-on action comedy, is the best part of the film because it keeps up the pace of the jokes while also delivering thrillingly staged action beats.  Going into it, you wouldn't think that this would have the best action sequences of the year so far, but it's certainly in the running.  They're inventive, funny, and energetic; maximizing the potential of Wright's kineticism, as the camera whips across the room from character to character.

Many films with this level of vigor do so at the expensive of story and character, but The World's End doesn't cut any corners.  Like Scott Pilgrim, the film has a level-based structure, with 12 pubs taking the place of 7 evil ex-boyfriends, but the table-turning 2nd act saves this construction from being repetitive and exhausting.  At its core, the movie is all about growing up and maturing.  Shaun of the Dead also had similar themes, and it's easy to see why Wright keeps returning to these ideas, because they make for a compelling backbone when telling a story about protagonist suddenly being called to action.  Gary King (Pegg) is caught in a state of arrested adolescence, stuck remembering the glory days of his youth, and desperate to relive them.  Meanwhile, the rest of his friends have embraced adulthood, getting married and having kids in the years since their first attempt at the Golden Mile many years ago.  Their tailored suits provide a stark contrast to Gary's loose black duster, and this maturity gap is the impetus behind the character drama in the film.  It's no coincidence, then, that the twist that kicks off the second half also ties into the theme of whether it's best to stay the same or move on with your life.

So if there are any faults to found in the film, it's that that theme gets so muddled near the end of the film.  In general, the third act loses a bit of energy in dealing with a large info-dump about the circumstances of the twist, but that'd be easier to overlook if the story didn't completely contradict the message that had been so carefully construction in the previous two acts.  I appreciate the ending's goal, concluding that whether you choose to revel in the past or look towards the future, the freedom to do either is what's important, but ultimately there's no growth for Pegg's character.  Aside from that, The World's End is an entertaining and thoughtful film, one that deserves its placement next to the likes of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Late to the Party #4: Before Sunrise & Before Sunset (1995, 2004)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

While it may not be my favorite genre, there are many good romantic comedies out there.  Off the top of my head, a few of my favorites include: (500) Days of Summer, Love, Actually, Some Like it Hot, and Crazy. Stupid. Love.  However, I can't as readily think of any good romantic dramas.  There's a much higher degree of difficulty that comes with the romantic drama -- without a laugh, it's easy for all of that romance to feel cheesy, overwrought, or melodramatic.  Two romance films that seemed to be the exception were Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, which frequently get praised for their level of naturalism and avoidance of the common pitfalls of the romantic drama.  Getting to the series has been on my to-do list for a very long time, yet despite all of the assurances that I'd love it, I always managed to find something else to watch when I had free time.  Well, the upcoming DVD release of the third installment in the series, Before Midnight, finally prompted me to watch the first two, and I'm happy to report that they're just as lovely as promised.

What a beautiful and sad feeling it is to know that you'll only do something once.  Before Sunrise is all about that feeling, telling the story of two people who have a chance encounter and know that they can only spend one night together before parting ways.  The film opens with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) riding on the same train to Vienna.  After moving her seat to get away from a noisy couple distracting her from reading, Celine and Jesse strike up a conversation, and when the train arrives at Jesse's stop, he convinces her to get off with him and walk around the city.  This might sound like the kind of generic meet-cute that drives many films of its ilk, but Before Sunrise elevates past that because of how natural it feels.  It takes this random encounter and puts a spin on it, almost saying "what if this really happened"?

The easygoing nature of Jesse and Celine's initial encounter stretches through the entire film.  This is helped by Hawke and Delpy, whose organic chemistry really sells the mix of hesitancy and intrigue that both characters have regarding each other.  There's a scene early in the film in a record shop, where the camera just observes the two of them stealing glances at each other, one pair of eyes looking away just as the other finds its target.  It's entrancing to watch this play out, almost like a game, and although it's a still shot, the whole thing is absolutely electric.  For as exhilarating as that wordless scene is, the true spark of the film comes from the dialogue.  Linklater's script has a rambling feel to it -- the film is basically one long conversation segmented by varying locations -- and that'd be a problem if the dialogue wasn't so strong.  Instead of rely on incidents to drive the story forward, the film leans on Jesse and Celine just talking, and through these conversations, you learn so much about them.  You don't discover Jesse's cynicism through conflict, he just talks about his worldview after the two get approached by a fortuneteller.  Funny, engaging, profound -- there's a different gem for everyone to find in the interactions between the two leads.  For me, the scene where Jesse theorizes that people are so self-loathing because they always have to be around themselves, saying "I've never done anything where I wasn't in attendance," hit me particularly hard.  It packs an even bigger punch in the final shots, showing the city during the day, and how it takes on a different feeling without the magic of Jesse and Celine's presence.  The bond between the two of them is extremely relateable, and their separation at the end of the film is quite moving.  They agree to reunite at the same spot in 6 months, but as the credits roll, you can't help but feeling like any one of life's vicissitudes could thwart their plans.

And as we learn in Before Sunset, the two of them never did reunite as they promised.  The film picks back up 9 years later, where Jesse wrote a bestselling book based on the events in Sunrise and Celine is married and living in Paris.  Jesse is in Paris for a book signing, and Celine, after reading about his upcoming visit in the newspaper, decides to visit him.  Before Sunrise stood well on its own, but it's here in Before Sunset where the series goes from excellent to a monumental work of art, picking up the pieces from the first film and continuing to build them beautifully.

Like Sunrise, this one is a whole lot of walking and talking, yet the substance is completely different.  Where the first film was all about possibility, the presiding feeling over the sequel is regret.  As two complementary pieces, the films subtly point out the differences between being in your 20s and being in your 30s.  The conversations in Sunrise were all about Jesse and Celine ruminating on life itself, but the discussions in Sunset are mostly about their lives, almost as if time has dulled the skyward-looking, meditative nature within their younger selves.  Both seem to be changed by their experiences, but their underlying disposition is still the same, with Jesse being a bit of a cynic and Celine being more of a romantic dreamer.

Sunset is also haunted by the idea of memory.  So many of the conversations are about how memories form and what purpose they serve.  There's a deep longing to return to old memories that mixes with the frustrations of the expectations that those memories set.  9 years passed between these films, both within the story and outside of it, and Linklater smartly plays with this passage of time.  Near the beginning of the film, Celine takes Jesse to task for romanticizing their night in the book, stating he wrote that they had sex, when she claims that they didn't.  Jesse then insists that they did, and they go back and forth until neither is really certain what happened on that night so long ago.  Because I saw the second film the day after I watched the first one, I had a more vivid recollection of the events (it's never explicitly shown in the first film, but we're supposed to think that they did have sex), yet for people who had to wait 9 years to get a sequel, they probably had the same difficulty recalling what happened that the characters do.  The film has a few more instances of these kind of brilliant callbacks, like how in the first film, Jesse is about to launch into a story, but he prefaces it by asking "do you believe in reincarnation"?  Celine replies that she does, but when Jesse offhandedly asks the same thing in the second film, she says "no."  It's played like neither of them remember their initial conversation, and that Celine has just changed over time, to the point where some of her worldviews have shifted.

Once again, Sunset is stylistically sumptuous, like the first film.  Although it's shot a bit differently -- the warmer Paris contrasting with the cold, muted Vienna -- there's still a use of long takes to capture the unfolding conversations.  The same thoughtful, nuanced, and naturalistic dialogue is still there; and you become easily hypnotized by the words being spoken, falling back into familiar rhythms as easily as Jesse and Celine do.  Yet here, there's more baggage to their conversations, weighing the whole thing down with an aching solemnity.  As much as relationships end positively in stories, Before Sunset is more realistic about these sorts of things, and real life is much less neat than the movies.  What we got in Sunrise was only a glimpse at these people's lives, and their change over the course of 9 years goes to show how hard it is to arc out the path of somebody's life.

The arc of the film itself is beautiful though, concluding as Jesse and Celine have winded down their time together and end up at Celine's apartment.  Celine plays a song on the guitar that she wrote about their original night together, and it's a crushing wave of catharsis after about 70 minutes of barely restrained longing and loneliness.  That scene alone gives Before Sunset the edge over Before Sunrise.  But aside from that, while it may not have the beautiful romanticism of the first installment, Before Sunset's exploration of the overwhelming sadness behind missed opportunities eventually overtakes you.  I could easily just leave the series at that ending, with the uncertainty of whether or not Jesse decides to miss his flight to stay with Celine, but I'm excited to see Before Midnight, especially since it's basically the best reviewed film of the year.  With these films, Linklater has created something really powerful and ambitious, like Michael Apted's Up series for American audiences, tracking the trajectories of two people who occasionally collide and leave indelible marks on each other's lives.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

How Breaking Bad Subverts the Masculine Power Fantasy

The Sopranos is my favorite show of all time, but sometimes I hate the television landscape that it created.  Sure, it ushered in the golden age of television, paving the way for great shows like The Wire and Deadwood, but it also gave other creators the false impression that all they had to do was follow the template of The Sopranos and they'd have a high-quality drama on their hands.  Thus, for the last decade we've gotten so many shows centered around male antiheroes, despite the fact that The Sopranos was about so much more than that.  I'm sick, sick, sick of stories about male antiheroes.  When done well, you get a show like Mad Men, which is the closest successor we currently have to The Sopranos.  But when done wrong, you get a genre that I like to call "male fantasy" -- shows like Ray Donovan, Sons of AnarchyHouse of Cards, etc.  These shows are all about men being "cool" and "awesome" and "dark," in a way that makes the men who watch them feel vicariously fulfilled.  Usually, these shows have weak female characters, to cater to the kind of men who prefer to think of women alternately as obstacles or sexual objects.  I don't want to make assumptions about what some Breaking Bad fans think the show is, but Walter White certainly thinks he's living in a male fantasy show, and that's what will ultimately be his downfall.

At its core, some of Breaking Bad has always been driven by the idea of frustrated masculinity.  It's about men who are trying to live up to the idea of manhood.  The impetus of Walter White's evolution has always been his desperate need to no longer feel weak.  Even before his diagnosis of cancer, he was a lowly bumbling chemistry teacher, a man without power.  But the writers subtly highlight that Walt's hubris and skewed sense of self was something that was always within him, and that getting cancer just gave him a reason to assert himself.  Throughout the course of the show, we've seen his efforts to gain power -- over both his own life and the lives of others -- but any shred of power he gains just makes him want more.  He's driven by the brutish, masculine concept of "winning," but he's chasing goalposts that continuously reset.

This sense of frustrated masculinity extends to Hank and Jesse, just in slightly different ways.  Hank's story is a series of events that shake his constitution: the shooting of Tuco early in season 2, the tortoise explosion later in that season, and the attack that left him incapacitated in season the middle of season 3.  As much as he wants to be the alpha male drug-busting cop, these moments take a toll that's both physical and mental.  The events of "One Minute" were the jumping off point for the arc that he'll follow until the end of the series -- the desire to catch whoever is at the center of all this destruction in his life.  Where Walt is a man thrust forward by his own ego, Hank is pulled by an obsession to get back in the saddle again (a term that brings forth the vision cowboys, another masculine ideal).  On the other hand, Jesse's frustrated masculinity seems to be the most reluctant.  Instead of being ruled by the idea of winning and losing, Pinkman is almost always driven by others.  Whenever he's asked to kill or do some otherwise criminal offense, it's usually because somebody else asks him to, almost as if he's trying to live up to the expectations placed upon him.

The difference that makes Breaking Bad fall outside of the realm of male fantasy lies in who we're supposed to root for.  While we're supposed to cheer on Ray Donovan as he apathetically bangs another impossibly hot chick who for some reason is attracted to him, or raise our fists when the Sons of Anarchy crew live to see another day, it became increasingly clear that we're not supposed to root for Walter White.  The best antihero shows have a level of self-awareness about their protagonist, and Breaking Bad is able to get away with all of the deplorable things that Walt does because it exists in a highly moral world.  None of us know exactly how Breaking Bad will end, but we're all pretty sure that Walt will get his comeuppance for all of his transgressions.  Actions have consequences, and anybody who's still on the Walter White train should hop off quickly, because it's going down and it's going down hard.  Essentially, the world of Breaking Bad has no room for anybody who's interested in the idea of male fantasy.

Another thing that elevates Breaking Bad past male fantasy is its female characters.  There are some people who think that Skyler is a terrible, useless character, but those people are simply incorrect.  Skyler has flaws, but they are no more outsized than any of the male characters' flaws.  Plus, unlike women in male fantasy shows, Skyler is three-dimensional and has her own agency.  Although we may not want to admit it, because her actions stand in the way of us getting a more wanton and insouciant show, she's the most pragmatic character in Breaking Bad's universe.  And while Marie isn't as important to the story as her sister is, she still has her own quirks and nuances, and provides great comic relief.  On Breaking Bad, the women are the sympathetic ones, often caught in the wake of the actions of men, and left to pick up the pieces.  The show would be a much less interesting and layered without them.

Breaking Bad may be a show full of violence, explosions, and meth cooking, but it's mostly about exploring the psychological makeup of these characters and the sliding scale of morality on which they function.  Whenever the show occasionally falters, as it did a few times in season 4 and the first half of season 5, it's when the writers rely too much on the "coolness factor" of the story, veering dangerously close to male fantasy territory.  The first of the final 8 episodes airs tomorrow night, and hopefully it remembers that the show is at its best when it's condemning the idea of masculine power, not when it's playing into it.