Look at almost anybody’s list of TV’s best and most durable recent dramas and, a large percentage of them, from “The Wire” to “Breaking Bad, are likely to be crime dramas. That means different things on different shows: “The Killing” plays by the rules of a procedural whodunit, while “Breaking Bad” follows the trajectory of classic noir as defined, if memory serves, by novelist Megan Abbott: “Starts bad, gets worse.”
As ace crime novelist turned writer-producer on “The Wire,” scriptwriter George Pelecanos told IW’s Alison Willmore: “Crime stories are a narrative engine. You grab the viewer with a mystery to be solved, but that’s not why the viewer stays with you.”
“The Killing,” which wrapped up its excellent third season on Sunday, seemed to offend some commentators by adhering at the end a little too closely to the conventions of generic crime fiction, with an artfully contrived least-likely-suspect reveal. It’s always a tightrope act in this genre, deciding how many hints to drop, and “The Killing” may have erred slightly or the side of concealment for the sake of surprise. But what did the complainers think they were watching if not a murder mystery?
“The Killing” dispatches its Suffering Cops on a grim journey that is unashamedly existential. As Mireille Enos’ Sara Linden put it a couple of episodes ago, cops go to work and “fail every day” — and in a context in which failure means watching an innocent man twitch at the end of a rope, or finding in the trunk of a car the body of a teenage girl you promised to protect. In a lovely respite scene in the final episode, Linden and her partner, Joel Kinnaman’s Stephen Holder, renewed their strained sense of partnership with a few jokes, reminding us that in some respects cops are very much like soldiers: The only person they’re fighting for, day and date, is the person in the trench next to them.
The British crime drama “Broadchurch,” which begins tomorrow, August 7 at 10, on BBC America, had England riveted when it played there in March and April. No secret that it’s an attempt to create a homegrown UK equivalent of the Scandinavian crime dramas that began their march to world domination in a designated Saturday night time slot on BBC Four. The show strikes an unusually adept balance between a few questions that eventually get answered and those that never can be.
Like the original versions of “The Killing” and “The Bridge,” “Broadchurch” is as much about the ripple effects of a crime through a community as it is about detective work. And in contrast to those urban dramas this is very much a small-town show, with an unusually strong sense of place and space. The writer-producer, Chris Chibnall (“Law & Order: UK”), carefully builds the story of a child murder in a small seacoast town into the village in Dorset, Clevedon, where he’s lived in for a decade, and where the program was filmed. At crucial points in the story the investigators, led by 11th Doctor David Tennant and “Peep Show’s” Olivia Colman, stand in a field and look all around to see where the local church, a suspect’s home and the high street stand in relation to each other.
Tension builds between Tennant’s D.I. Alec Hardy, a city detective fleeing a scandal who swoops in to take the promotion that Colman’s veteran local copper Ellie Miller thinks should be hers. In the early episodes they are faced with a surfeit of suspects, townies who are hiding things that may or may not be relevant. And actual honest to God themes begin to emerge, in the literary sense of what the story is ultimately on about, right up to the rare surprise twist ending that doesn’t feel arbitrary.
The run up to the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad” is all about anticipation, at this point, stoked by a ubiquitous ad campaign. I’ve been fueling the flames by attempting to watch the first four-and-half seasons over again from start to finish. It’s as absorbing as ever, the early episodes wonderfully in tune and resonant with the later ones — suggesting that the run of the show taken as a whole is truly a personal work for show-runner Vince Gilligan’s authorship, despite the highly collaborative creative process of TV.
One thing that surprised me on this second viewing was what a fast start “Breaking Bad” got off to. I had it firmly in mind that this was a slow burn program that took its time laying the groundwork. But already in the pilot episode high school chemistry teacher Walter White got his cancer diagnosis, unleashed some startling violence on a group of jerks who were taunting his son, and contemplated meth as a possible source of emergency income. By episode two, people had started dying.
The key to this, I think, is something that actor Bryan Cranston says about Walt in a podcast panel discussion about the show. Moderator David Edelstein suggested that Walt’s alter ego, the porkpie-hatted bad ass Heisenberg, was a mask he assumed in order to be intimidating to his rivals. No, Cranston said, “Walter is the mask.” The show quite correctly indicates that Heisenberg was in there all along.
The only demurrals I’ve heard to the obvious greatness of “Breaking Bad” have been on this point: No matter the richness of the drama that’s been sculpted around its central premise (Gilligan’s famous formulation is “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface”), the premise itself may be less than profound, a somewhat hackneyed male fantasy of unleashing the Id, spin-off of Jekyll and Hyde.
The central tension of the show, in fact, is between the huge gratification Walt feels in being unfettered, in grasping what he wants and obliterating his competition, becoming the King of the Jungle, and the constraints of family life, which he never renounces. Note, for example, that Walt never does the one thing that would seem to obligatory for the newly unfettered: getting a little strange. No equivalent for Heisenberg of Tony Soprano’s ashtray-hurling Russian chippies.