What We Can All Learn From Zombies and Meth Dealers

Basically, it boils down to this:  you really don’t want to become either one.

Okay, there’s more than that. Specifically, as it relates to great story telling.

What got the wheels turning on this post was a piece I saw on “CBS News Sunday Morning” with Charles Osgood. Commentator Luke Burbank was lamenting the wealth of high-quality episodic television on the internet. How cable and the networks pump so much “must-see TV” into sites like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon that it’s impossible to keep up with it all, let alone concentrate on the responsibilities of our day to day lives. If you’re like me, (you know who you are) there’s one or two of these gems out there making unreasonable demands on your time. I won’t get into the details of this phenomenon, as Mr. Burbank sums it up perfectly, and I urge you to check out his piece. If for no other reason than to reassure yourself that you’re not alone. Support groups are forming in your area now.

Read the “Sunday Morning” piece here.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I’ve been getting my fix from the current kingpin of television crack, cable network AMC via Netflix and Amazon instant video. You’d think that the millions of junkies hooked on Mad Men alone would be enough to buy the network a nice Caribbean retirement, but then you give us a taste of The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad? Jeez, give us a chance.

Already I can hear murmurs of “what about Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire or Lost or Downton Abbey or Dexter or The Sopranos or blah or blah blah blah?” To which I say: I hear you, man. And that’s the point. It’s a nearly endless supply of programming blow. And a lot of it is high-quality stuff. I’m talking primo shit. And when our dealer cuts us off at the end of a season, we can just sample the goods from another. The greedy bastards.

I started watching The Walking Dead when the first season came out on Netflix, mostly out of curiosity. I’d read and watched my share of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories (zombie induced or no) before, so my expectations were somewhat low. Thoughts of “what else can they possibly do with that?” and “great, another mindless gore-fest” crossed my mind.  But, as any fan of the show (or the graphic novels it’s based on) can tell you, they’ve done a hell of a lot with it. A lot that’s new and refreshing, and as a result, highly addictive. And yes, it is a gore-fest, (how could it not be?) but it’s far from mindless. By focusing on the survivors and their struggle to keep surviving, (or, depending on the character, their grim acceptance of death) the show puts a fresh spin (for me, at least) on the zombie theme. And the writing is top-notch.

Here’s an example:

In the series pilot, Rick (the main character) finds himself barricaded inside a house with a man and the man’s son. The man tells Rick that during the zombie outbreak, his wife had been bitten and (per zombie protocol) had become a zombie herself. Throughout the episode, we see the wife staggering aimlessly among a group of zombies outside the house, and when Rick and the man eventually part ways, the man takes a high-powered rifle to an upstairs window and struggles with the decision to put his wife (and the mother of his son) down.

Do you have to suspend your disbelief to be affected by this? Of course. But the story develops organically and is not forced, so for me it works. In highly dramatic fashion.

And don’t get me started on season two’s mid-season finale. I still get goose bumps. That’s all I’m sayin’.

And speaking of suspending our disbelief…

Is it far-fetched to think a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer would turn to manufacturing crystal meth to provide a nest egg for his wife and family after he’s gone? Sure. Does the story work in the hands of AMC and series creator Vince Gilligan? Hell yes.

For me, Breaking Bad came out of nowhere. It had been on almost three seasons and picked up numerous Emmys before I decided to give it a shot. I guess it was the aforementioned premise that had stopped me. “Yeah, right. You can’t make a show out of that. Who’s gonna watch that?!”

But like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad develops slowly over time. Organically. It takes a couple of episodes for Walt, our chemistry teacher-cum-drug lord to come to terms with his situation, a few more to put together his team and his operation, a season or two to get the hang of dealing with the seedy underbelly of meth culture, but by season five (which I haven’t started watching yet, so no spoilers, please) he’s taking on the Mexican cartels. In the hands of lesser talents, this could come off as a jumbled, idiotic mess. But with the slow build Gilligan orchestrates, along with great acting and writing, it’s as addicting as the stuff Walt stirs up in his lab.

Not only does the show’s overall premise unfold naturally, many individual episodes and scenes exhibit this creative restraint as well. Compared to the jumpy, constantly changing camera angles and non-stop dialogue (which often comes off as incredibly stilted and overly clever) of many shows out there, this is refreshing. And real. (ish)

An example? Sure:

After one of Walt’s early drug deals turns into a massive clusterfuck, he manages to tie up a rival (and very pissed off) drug dealer in the basement of a flop house. He knows that if the roles were reversed, this guy wouldn’t hesitate to kill him on the spot, but Walt’s not there yet. (He’s only been in the meth biz for an episode or two, mind you) He knows what he has to do if this grand plan of his is going to work, so it’s another of many turning points for Walt. The resolution of Walt’s dilemma, which takes a large chunk of the episode to play out, is nothing short of riveting. Two great actors in a basement with a brilliant script. That’s it. Must-see TV.

So what’s the point of all this, right?

Right.

So, depending on whether you’re a fan of these shows or not, I’ve either spent the bulk of this post preaching to the choir or pointlessly babbling on about “my two favorite TV shows that are like, totally awesome.”  Both of these a rather egregious waste of cyberspace if we’re being totally honest here.

My point is this. When you have the freedom to let your story and characters develop naturally, (I think) it makes for a much more dramatic and compelling story. In this way, these kinds of programs deliver an experience similar to that of reading a novel, which is something movies can’t do, given the time constraints. Too often, something is sacrificed when the studios try to shoehorn a novel’s worth of characterization and story development into two hours. (including the music montages)

Takeaway (or throwaway) message: Time and space give the story (and the drama) a chance to grow up big and strong.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. Next time I’ll be fielding complaints from movie fans.

Thanks for reading!

(And no, I’m not getting kickbacks from AMC or the zombie lobby to say all this)

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