Every week in this space, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald will run down the happenings and mishappenings in NBC’s Thursday comedy night done mostly right. (Note: The order reflects newsworthiness, not quality. Although occasionally the two just might overlap.)
1. Parks and Recreation
Watching NBC on Thursday nights in the fall of 2012 can be a dispiriting, depressing experience. The lights are flickering and there’s a chill in the air. From week to week, you never know who’s going to show up, old friends or those annoying neighbors from down the block. Once the crown jewel of a proud network, Thursdays have fallen into deep disrepair. Worse than disrepair, actually: disregard. If it were physically and morally possible to broadcast nothing but the The Voice five nights a week, interspersed only with union-mandated feeding breaks for the talent (Christina Aguilera prefers the mango-flavored peacock gruel) and action shots of Matthew Perry firing crossbows with the cast of Revolution, network president Bob Greenblatt would do it in a heartbeat. Faster, actually. Those heartwarming Whitney promos aren’t going to produce themselves.
All good television shows are about either work or family. The best, of course, are about both. The office and the home are the two great sacred spaces of American life (with the sports stadium, the movie theater, and the Laser Tag arena close behind); any program that concerns itself with one or the other — or, better yet, the push/pull between the two — will likely find not only an audience, but also find itself celebrated for its universality.
Two of the most acclaimed comedies of recent years have followed this blueprint to a T: The Office, with its sad drones learning to love those they work with, and Modern Family, about manic relatives forced to work hard to deal with those they love. The laughter, in both cases, comes from recognition. On the dramatic side, the challenge is bigger. Using extremes of context — murder, say, or the pre-dating of casual Fridays — shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men seek to hold a mirror up to our own voracious ambition. Maybe we think it’s OK to skip a few birthdays or not make it home in time for dinner, but there’s a slow, debilitating cost to all that earning, a price we pay for providing for others. Even if we can’t spell gabagool, let alone eat it, and would never allow our daughters near a creep like this, when we cringe, it’s also out of recognition.
A lot can change in a year. About twelve months before the events of “Buyout,” Walt and Jesse were confronted with their first corpse. After much nausea and even more nerves, they eventually decided on a corrosive plan: use hydrofluoric acid and it will burn everything away. The stuff is clear like water, but it’ll eat through just about anything: clothes, guns, even a bathroom floor. Once you splash it out, there’s no stopping it; the acid can even dissolve a human being. With the benefit of a calendar year, we can see something else that can be all too easily devoured by it, too: the humanity of the people on the other end of the bottle.
We’re all fascinated by danger, but terrified of risk. It’s why we press our face up against the glass at the zoo, raise our hands in the air while safely buckled into the car on Space Mountain, or watch other people eat Paula Deen’s food. It’s human nature, this desire to touch the flame but avoid being burned, and it’s something that Jesse Pinkman has come to understand well. Over the past four seasons, as his wardrobe has matured from the discount rack at Spencer Gifts to the executive collection from Today’s Mook, so, too, has his conscience. He may have ventilated Gale in a moment of panicked self-preservation, but otherwise he takes great pains to avoid hurting other people — especially young people — even if the product he’s cooking is a killer. And now, since launching the meth division of Vamonos Pest, it’s fallen to Jesse to play peacemaker and attempt to thread the needle between Mike’s murderous cool and Walt’s voracious ego. His is the voice of reason constantly trying to suggest a third way, a potential plan that can achieve the same devious goal as his partners’ but with less fatal ends: think of the magnets in the premiere, or even preserving Lydia’s life. But the devastating final moments of “Dead Freight” proved irrevocably (and quite unforgettably) that when you get down to it, Jesse’s placating third way is about as good as the third rail. There’s always a cost on Breaking Bad. As long as Walter White wants to get paid, the piper will be, too.
The biggest concern going into this bifurcated final season of Breaking Bad was always about structure. When Tio’s bell tolled for Gus, it made for explosive television but risky long-term planning. Other than the predictable bonds of morality, family, and legality, what would exist for Walter White to chafe against going forward? The calm, now decomposed visage of Mr. Fring gave Walt something both to aspire toward and cower from. Even if it were time for Heisenberg to lay claim to the crown, who would be there to sharpen the guillotine?
The fifth season of Breaking Bad opens with a series of images so shocking, confusing, and disorienting that it makes Season 2’s floating teddy bear acid trip seem downright conventional.
Yes, the time jump is surprising, as is Walt’s full head (and face!) of hair, his new identity as a proud New Hampshirite, and the monosyllabic return of Jim Beaver as an extralegal gun peddler. But what really boggled the mind was the idea that a member of the White family — a clan more dedicated to breakfast than the Butterworths — would leave a plate of eggs untouched. Forget what Saul declared late last season. If the man who sired the perpetually ravenous Walter Jr., a boy with syrup in his veins and an Eggo where his heart used to be, is able to ignore his free birthday bacon, it can mean only one thing: These truly are the end times.