Category Archives: TV Shows

Breaking Bad, Tarantino, and the Art of Tension

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You might have noticed that the opening of the “Confessions” episode of Breaking Bad feels straight out of a Tarantino movie. In it, Todd and some fellow criminals sit in a booth at a diner, engaging in jovial banter as Todd recounts the train heist from “Dead Freight.” The story comes off as amusing and everyone has a good chuckle. Tarantino has similar scenes in about half of his movies. Surely this is no accident. This is an homage.

Another common trait between Tarantino and the makers of Breaking Bad is that both are masters of tension. In fact, I think tension plays a key part in why both are so watchable, and why audiences will follow them pretty much anywhere.

If you’ve watched Breaking Bad from the beginning, you can probably name a dozen tense scenes off the top of your head. Walt’s meeting in Tuco’s office, Jane choking, the twins attacking Hank, Jesse at Gale’s apartment, Gus straightening his tie, Walt and Hank’s confrontation in the garage. These scenes stick in your memory.

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Tarantino’s movies are also full of tension. He’s given us the stand-off at the end of Reservoir Dogs, Mia’s overdose in Pulp Fiction, the underground bar scene in Inglorious Basterds, the dinner set piece in Django Unchained, and many more.

These scenes have one thing in common: They’re the result of brilliant plotting. Two diametrically opposed characters or goals are are set in motion. The pacing of the show or movie is deliberate and controlled so each scene increases the dramatic tension between the opposing forces.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, in an interview with Rolling Stone, said, “My favorite time as a kid was not Christmas morning. It was the night before Christmas, and the sense of expectation.” That’s a very telling anecdote, because he’s describing tension. In the best scenes in the show, the pressure ratchets up to the breaking point. Then, somehow, they stretch it even further–until it explodes. The scenes we remember are the ones that end with those cathartic explosions.

Creating compelling stories using tension and release isn’t some forgotten secret known only to Tarantino and the makers of Breaking Bad. Most writers understand how to do it in the abstract. Scenes like the ones mentioned above are so rare in pop culture because it takes a tremendous amount of skill and hard work to pull them off.

But when the elements come together, as they so often do in Breaking Bad and Tarantino movies, the results are better than almost anything else out there. Controlling tension with such mastery is what every storyteller should strive to do.1

  1. By the way, this building and releasing of tension isn’t limited to horror and crime stories. Think about the bus stop scene at the end of The Remains of the Day, or the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3–tension so high it could crack your TV.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee Review

The modern world demands your full attention. You’re overworked. Your phone chimes with alerts and messages. E-mails accrue. Social network feeds pile up. You struggle to stay on top of it all, but it keeps coming. After spending eight, nine hours at work and wrestling with inboxes, you want to sink into the couch and idle. You need a break.

In the old days, TV offered a release valve. But TV has changed. There are more great shows than ever before, but they ask a lot of viewers. I’m talking about morally complex dramas. Sprawling period pieces. Hyper-referential comedies. They tax the brain. After a workday that leaves you feeling like an empty husk, TV won’t do you any good.

Jerry Seinfeld is here to help. His new project is a web series called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and it takes breeziness to a whole new level. Each week Jerry and a famous friend have a meandering, unscripted conversation while they go and get coffee in a classic car. It’s vapid. It’s pointless. Even by the loosest definition, it hardly qualifies as a show.

I love it.

At the start of each episode, Jerry calls the guest and asks if they’re free to get a cup of coffee. They always say yes. Even if they’re A-list workaholics like Alec Baldwin or Ricky Gervais, they have time for coffee on zero notice. Already, in the first minute, we know we’ve entered a fictional world.

In real life, scheduling coffee with a friend can take days. Messages go back and forth. The times that work for one don’t work for the other. Eventually you settle on a date, three weeks in the future–as long as nothing comes up.

But this show takes place in a world without obligations. No one mentions anything they have to do later. Not once do they glance at their phones. The cinematography is artful, peppered with shots of the car gleaming in the sunlight and closeups of coffee splashing into mugs. It’s our world, but better.

If there’s a focus, it’s on the conversation between Jerry and his friend. The discussions are funny–of course they’re funny–but what they’re saying isn’t even important. What’s important is that they’re having a fucking blast. They’re cracking up.

This is a show that makes no demands. There’s no plot to follow or themes to contemplate. Flowing through every shot, streaming through every jazzy note of the soundtrack, is a lovely feeling of ease and relaxation. It’s unlike anything else on TV.

In a world of demands and responsibilities, taking a few minutes a week to watch Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is like a miniature vacation. It’s exactly what we need.

How Cats Work

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When my wife and I moved in together a year and a half ago, I became the co-owner of two cats. There’s Mancha, an extroverted love-bug who greets visitors at the door and spends most of his time either asleep or snuggling up to whoever’s around. Unfortunately, for about 30 minutes a day, he acts like a maniacal banshee, shrieking at nothing, doing laps around the house, and chewing on the other cat. The other cat is Chula, a curmudgeon who’s usually nowhere to be found. I assume she’s off in a dark room somewhere, listening to The Cure and contemplating how unfair it is that she’s trapped in a world inhabited by other life forms.

For several months after the cats moved in, I had no idea what they wanted from me. Their food dish would be full and their litter box would be empty, but still they’d approach me and meow, obviously with some need unfulfilled or desire untended. I’d pet them, but they’d back away, annoyed. So I’d sit there blinking until they gave up and wandered off.

My whole life I’ve been a dog person, and until I started living with cats, I had no idea how big of a difference there was between the two species. Dogs are open books: all they really want is your approval (and to eat whatever you’re eating, regardless of whether they’d like it). Most of the time, a dog’s goal is to make its owner happy. This is why they’re popular pets.

Cats, on the other hand, don’t give a shit about you. Technically speaking, this should make them terrible pets. But luckily for them, evolution has made them adorable. As a bonus, cats are also lower maintenance than dogs, which can make owning them worthwhile in some cases.

Now that I’ve spent some time with cats, I’ve started to understand most of their desires (to go outside, a bite of fish, to break my focus whenever I’m working), but I’m still baffled about how to make Mancha calm down when he’s hyper and how to turn Chula more personable.

So it was with great interest that I watched a new show on Animal Planet called My Cat from Hell. It’s about the owners of problem cats–biting, scratching, hissing hellspawn–who want to make their felines into normal, loving pets. So these folks call a cat specialist to their house to assess the situation and tell them what to do differently to make their cats stop being total assholes.

This cat whisperer fella is a fat, bald, tattooed hipster named Jackson Galaxy. (I’ll take a moment to let the absurdity sink in). The thing is, unlike me and most cat owners out there, this guy actually has a grounded understanding of why cats do what they do, and how to shape their behavior.

Based on his impressive results in the first episode, I learned that cats primarily want what we all want: to feel safe. To achieve this, the owners of horrible cats had to arrange their furniture so the felines could circle around the room without touching the floor. This makes them feel like they have escape options if–heaven forbid–someone turns on a vacuum on the floor. Mr. Galaxy also stresses the importance of body language when engaging with a cat and how to hold them properly (cup them to your chest, letting their feet dangle). It’s all good stuff, and I’ve found some of it useful when dealing with my (admittedly less than hellish) cats.

In hindsight, Mr. Galaxy’s prescriptions make a sort of obvious, “why didn’t I think of that?” sense. But count me pleasantly surprised that some weirdo named Jackson Galaxy could cue the world in to what’s going on behind feline eyes. Now if only he’ll show me how to pep Chula up and chill Mancha out, I’ll be a Jackson Galaxy acolyte.