November 1, 2012

Where Medium Makes a Difference: Breaking Into Television

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A few years ago, I refused to watch television series. For some reason, I thought that this genre overemphasized commercial success and, as a result, undermined the importance of intellectual and artistic factors. In spite of this preconception — or should I say, misconception — I decided to give a couple television series the chance to impress me. Looking back now, I am really glad I did. The truth is that television series not only have the potential to explore intellectual themes through artistic means, but they also have the capacity to be more effective than movies in doing so.Two series that I have really enjoyed are Mad Men and Breaking Bad — both AMC productions. Although very different when compared to each other, both series are masterpieces in their own ways. Superficially, Mad Men is the story of Sterling Cooper — later, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — a fictional advertising agency based in New York City during the 1960’s. But in reality, Mad Men is more than that. Through its magnificent cinematography, costume design, acting and dialogue — just to name a few factors — the series is able to explore quintessential themes about humanity in great depth. What makes Mad Men particularly impressive is that it takes the most basic questions about our humanity and travels with them back in time to the 1960s. The series provides an accurate account of American popular culture and culture in general during this period of time. For the length of an episode, Mad Men makes you feel like you are living in the ’60s. You forget your reality and suddenly become capable of understanding why people behaved the way they did. The production is truly an historical work. For this reason, it would not surprise me if the National Film Registry selects it to be stored in the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is less artsy than Mad Men. However, it compensates for this with exceptional screenwriting and superior acting. The series is about Walter White, a New Mexico high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. In order to provide a secure economic future for his pregnant wife and his son, Walter — a Chemistry Ph.D. graduate from Caltech —  decides to join forces with Jesse Pinkman — a former student of his — in order to produce and sell chemically-superior crystal meth. Like the series’ title suggests, the production explores Walter’s transformation from an awkward nice guy to a ruthless drug lord. What is particularly interesting is that the series also portrays how Jesse Pinkman is “breaking good.” That is, how Jesse changed from a drug addict and delinquent to a more mature and ethically conscious individual. How the interactions between these two characters led each one to become more similar to its counterpart reminds me of the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In both works, the relationship between the main characters is the essence of narrative and thematic behind it. By depicting these character transformations, the series constantly makes the viewer reflect about tough ethical dilemmas. It also forces us to consider the issue of human agency, and how the environment that surrounds us can have a huge impact on our character. Unlike most series, Breaking Bad has it all. Starting from the pilot, the series is rich in action, drama and comedy. Although the first halves of its seasons tend to have more drama than action, these effectively build up the hype for the second halves — which never disappoint.    Films are typically immune to factors that harm television series. For instance, throughout its years, a show may face budget costs that can limit a production’s activities. A good example would be Breaking Bad itself. AMC decreased Breaking Bad’s budget in order to increase Mad Men’s — which is more popular among critics. As a result, Breaking Bad’s directors and producers had to find a way to conserve or improve the show’s quantity with a lower budget. In addition to the budget factor, there is also the probability of an actor or actress’ real life affecting a television show’s plot. For example, Mad Men’s screenwriters had to find a way to plausibly explain Betty Draper’s weight gain. In real life, this was the case because the actress was pregnant. In the Mad Men world, it was because she had a supposed hormonal problem. I respect the fact that directors, screenwriters and producers have to adapt to these factors and are still able to produce great works. And we must also not forget that series tend to be more extensive than films, which allow a deeper exploration of characters and themes. In sum, to those artistic and intellectual aficionados looking at television series with skeptical eyes, and to those looking for good series to watch, I highly recommend Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Abdiel Ortiz-Carrasquillo is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at aortiz@cornellsun.com. I Respectfully Dissent appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: AJ Ortiz