09/30/13 The Feed
It's a tough sentence to write. This is my last column as the Tampa Bay Times TV and media critic.
As you read this piece, I'll be starting my first days as TV critic for NPR, attempting to bring the same eye for nuance, fun, quality and skepticism to public radio that I brought you here in 16 years as TV critic and 18 years at the newspaper overall.
Back when I started as the Times' pop music critic in 1995, it was a different time in television, media and pop culture. TV networks sent out review copies of shows on clunky videocassettes, DVRs didn't exist to capture TV shows with a button click, our 24/7 news cycle wasn't juiced by Twitter or smartphones, and Fox News Channel wouldn't emerge to change the news landscape for another year....
09/29/13 The Feed
That's how you end a series.
No unexpected stops, hanging storylines or ambiguous resolutions.
Sunday's finale of AMC's amazingly high-quality drama Breaking Bad resolved the tragic story of Walter White with an ending many expected, delivered in a most unexpected way.
Yes, Bryan Cranston's high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine drug lord Walter White died when the dust cleared at 10:15 p.m. Sunday night. But what was more important was how he died — from a bullet fired by a gun he gimmicked up by remote control himself — and what happened before the fatal shot was fired....
That’s how you end a series.
No unexpected stops, hanging storylines or ambiguous resolutions; Sunday’s finale of AMC’s amazingly high-quality drama Breaking Bad resolved the tragic story of Walter White with an ending many expected, delivered in a most unexpected way.
Yes, Bryan Cranston’s high school chemistry teacher-turned methamphetamine drug lord Walter White died when the dust cleared at 10:15 p.m. last night. But what was more important was how he died – from a bullet fired by a gun he gimmicked up by remote control himself – and what happened before the fatal shot was fired.
In the show’s final episodes this year, creator Vince Gilligan stripped everything from Walt: his $80-million fortune, stolen by a white supremacist gang who once served as his partners; his family, stripped of their home and money by federal authorities when Walt went on the run; his bond with surrogate son and former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who ratted to drug enforcement agents in an attempt to bring him down.
The only thing left for Walt was the delusion that he became Heisenberg – his alias as the ruthless drug lord who made the best meth west of the Mississippi – to build a nest egg for his family when he was stricken with cancer. And in Sunday’s finale, facing his wife Skyler (Emmy-winner Anna Gunn) inside the ratty apartment she was reduced to living in, that fiction finally fell away, too.
“I did it for me,” he told Skyler, hours before embarking on what he knew would be a suicide mission. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.”
Sunday’s finale was about Walt settling accounts. One moment, he was scaring the yuppies who pushed him out of a successful tech company into channeling his remaining fortune to his son; the next, he was slipping the deadly poison ricin into sweetener used by the rigid, predictable former partner who tried engineering his death.
Fans got glimpses of tonight’s action many episodes earlier, courtesy of two “flash forward” scenes which showed Walt purchasing a high-powered rifle and retrieving the ricin from a hiding spot in his former home. By the end of last week’s episode, we knew Walt was likely going after the Nazis who had taken his money; but how?
Seeing Walt use a remote control device to set off the rifle from a distance, killing all the Nazis but one just as they were preparing to kill him, was a masterstroke. Having Jesse strangle the one gang member who survived – polite psychopath Todd, who had kept Jesse prisoner and killed his ex-girlfriend as punishment for an escape attempt – was a cathartic release for an audience on tenterhooks all night.
But to have Walt mortally injured by a bullet from that gun while shielding Jesse as the gunfire shredded the gang – that was the kind of poetic justice only Gilligan could have conjured up (Jesse, who had famously vowed to never obey Walt again, even refused to shoot his former mentor when he had the chance – after his former teacher admitted he wanted to be killed once the gang was dead.)
During a conversation in Los Angeles a few years ago, I asked Gilligan if Breaking Bad was about the slow curdling of a man’s soul. And he suggested I consider another option: That Walt was just becoming the man he always wanted to be, once he felt free from society’s rules and conventions.
Admitting that truth before his death brought Walt full circle in a journey which truly transformed him from “Mr. Chips into Scarface” – a line Gilligan often used to describe the series -- then forced him to face the consequences. (Extra points to Gilligan for playing strains of Badfinger’s Baby Blue over Walt’s final caress of a meth-making machine, with its opening lyrics “Guess I got what I deserve.”)
That Gilligan was able to take an entire TV-watching fanbase on that ride for five seasons, and end the show expertly, entertainingly, suspensefully and satisfyingly, ranks Breaking Bad’s finale as one of the greatest achievements in our new modern Golden Age of Television.
Yeah, AMC managed to gum up the works a bit by shoehorning as many commercials as possible into a finale which was already extended by 15 minutes. And you had to stay off Twitter if you weren’t watching the finale live because too many great lines were endlessly posted and retweeted.
(My fave: When Yuppie Boy pulls a butter knife as Walt enters his home, the ex-Heisenberg looks down and says “Elliott, if we’re gonna go that way, you’re gonna need a bigger knife.”)
Many fans on Twitter wrote of feeling sad that the show was ending or anxious about the finale. Not me. I felt the satisfaction which comes from turning the final page in a great book – the thrill of finishing a good tale well told. And a hope that the great minds who created this wonder will soon find the time to spin another.
Take that, Sopranos and Dexter. Gilligan and his crew just showed you how it’s really supposed to be done....
As Breaking Bad steams toward the best finale season of any drama in modern TV history Sunday, it’s the one question fans are gathered in bars debating ad infinitum:
Who is going to die in the end?
My thesis, delivered with great authority in a St. Petersburg bar last night, is that underemployed high school teacher-turned-meth empire mastermind Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is going to wind up forced to kill Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the former student who has been his surrogate son since the series’ start.
Relax, spoiler hounds. I don’t know anything more than any other critic who has sat through all of the show’s 60-something episodes and interviewed creator Vince Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, co-star Bob Odenkirk and Dean Norris, whose character Hank Schrader was unceremoniously executed nearly two weeks ago.
My theory is based mostly on the fact that the show’s final episodes have seen Walt systematically stripped of everything he holds dear. When Hank, his DEA brother-in-law, was killed, Walt saw the delusion that he could manipulate or intimidate him into accepting his life of crime dashed irrevocably....
With just a few days left until I leave this space for good -- I'm headed to work at NPR as their TV critic on Monday -- I managed to sneak in one last freelance commentary for public radio in a conversation with All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel about the fall TV season....
Tampa Bay area fans of The Voice now have a Florida singer to support.
Donna Allen, a native of Key West who grew up in Tampa and was once a cheerleader for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stunned two of the judges in NBC’s Emmy-winning singing competition in an episode aired Monday....
The finale episode of Dexter on Sunday highlighted every problem that has turned this drama about a serial killer of killers from Showtime's crown jewel to a series well past its sell-by date.
Senseless tragedies for main characters. A bland, uninspiring villain. Increasingly silly explanations for why police don't figure out Dexter's true nature. And a blithe disdain for the moment-to-moment welfare of his son that borders on cruelty....
09/23/13 The Feed
If you missed the Dexter finale Sunday, it may have been because the penultimate episode of a much better show — best drama series Emmy winner Breaking Bad — was airing just a few channels over on AMC.
Sunday's episode, titled "Granite State" couldn't possibly match the power of last week's "Ozymandias," in which high school teacher-turned meth dealer Walter White (Bryan Cranston) saw his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) executed by a white supremacist gang he had partnered with....
This is what happens to TV shows which stay too long at the party.
Sunday’s finale for Dexter highlighted every problem that has turned this drama about a serial killers of killers from Showtime’s crown jewel to a series well past its sell-by date.
Senseless tragedies for main characters. A bland, uninspiring villain. Increasingly silly explanations for why police don’t figure out Dexter’s true nature. And a blithe disdain for the moment-to-moment welfare of his son which borders on cruelty.
It all began so promisingly. Eight seasons ago, Michael C. Hall’s embodiment of serial killer Dexter Morgan -- a seemingly soulless psychopath who directed his murderous urges at other killers and just happened to work for the Miami police as a forensic technician – felt fresh and daring.
His relationship with a mousy girlfriend and her two kids was explained as a cover to allay suspicions. And his complex code, developed by his policeman father to keep his homicidal activities secret, was a brilliant way to keep a character often depicted as the villain on the side of the heroes. A perfect anti-hero for a TV age which worships them.
But as the show matured and Dexter was forced to face the fact that he does have emotions, the show morphed into a program about three things: his family troubles, his romantic troubles and the villain of the season. And as the show aged, each of those pillars got shakier.
Which led viewers to Sunday’s episode, featuring the culmination of Dexter’s efforts to leave the country with fellow killer Hannah McKay and his young son Harrison. But ruthless killer Oliver Saxon, a preppy-looking nobody who somehow managed to shoot Dexter’s policewoman sister Deb while she was trying to arrest him, is still on the loose.
The plausibility of this situation was stretched to a laughable breaking point. McKay, played by blonde Australian beauty Yvonne Strahovski, never changes her hair color or hairstyle, despite being the most wanted woman in Miami – a fugitive on the run from police whose status as a marked woman requires the escape to Argentina.
In earlier episodes, even though a private detective and a U.S. Marshal suspect Deb is hiding McKay at her home, neither of them actually stakes out the house to make sure. In Sunday’s finale episode, though the private eye tracks down McKay and sits next to her on a bus to Daytona, he doesn’t use a cell phone to call ahead and alert police that they’re coming, giving her a chance to inject him with a sedative – suddenly she develops a conscience and doesn’t kill him – and make a hasty escape.
All of that pales in comparison to the finale scenes for Dexter, who visits Saxon after he’s in custody and manages to kill him with a ballpoint pen, with hardly any reaction from his pals on the police force – despite the fact that his sister, Deb, had died of a blood clot while recovering from a gunshot wound delivered by the killer.
That’s right. Producers killed off Dexter’s foulmouthed-yet-self-righteous sister after years of allowing her to skirt the edge of personal and professional oblivion. The death freed up Dexter to fake his own death and supposedly remove himself from the lives of those he loved to spare them any more pain.
But he’s essentially dumping his son with a woman he hasn’t really been involved with all that long – and who his son barely knows. The kid already lost his mom in a horrible way years ago – she was killed by the show’s most memorable villain, John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer, in season four – and now his dad also vanishes without a trace? I wouldn’t be surprised if another Morgan became a closet serial killer in a few years.
It’s a tribute to the compelling nature of the show’s characters that viewers would even attempt to wade through this mess of a finale to learn Dexter’s ultimate fate. Hall and his compatriots always made the most of even the most ludicrous plot turns, as Dexter always remained one step ahead of a police force which increasingly seemed like the dumbest law enforcement agency on television.
Television’s most anti antihero deserved better. But at least he’s out of our misery now....
09/22/13 The Feed
This may have been the weirdest Emmy Awards in recent history. And that, unfortunately, was not such a good thing. • The best example from Sunday's broadcast? Comic Will Ferrell ambled onstage with three kids in a t-shirt and sandals, saying he was asked at the last minute to announce the night's two biggest awards. Moments later, he handed the befuddled cast and producers of ABC's Modern Family their third consecutive award as best TV comedy....
Sometimes, being a contemporary jazz fan in Tampa Bay area can feel like wandering in the desert like a nomad.
Appearances by ace, big-name players are rare; a sign of how much the genre struggles locally, despite the passionate support of a devoted fan base.
All of this helps explain why drummer Billy Cobham and his band received a hero’s welcome when they touched down at the Palladium Theater Friday for a powerhouse performance of tunes from his landmark Spectrum album – now 40 years old....
This is a bittersweet moment; my last edition of the Deggys for the Tampa Bay Times.
As you may already know, I’m leaving the newspaper in October to become NPR’s TV critic. And who knows if the home of Nina Totenberg and Carl Kasell would ever let me present my own pronouncements on who really would take TV’s top honor if you could eliminate celebrity worship, fixation on past success and Hollywood’s passion for superficiality from the mix....
There's a media-based disorder that has affected everyone from fired Business Insider chief technology officer Pax Dickinson to ousted Big Brother contestant Aaryn Gries to Seth Green, star of Fox TV's highly criticized new comedy, Dads.
And I have given it a name: Bigotry Denial Syndrome.
BDS is what happens when someone in media comes to the mistaken conclusion that, because they are not a full-time, 24/7 bigot or sexist, that they can never do or say anything bigoted or sexist....
Questions about race and media? See my final book signing as Times TV/Media Critic Friday at The Club in Treasure Island09/19/13 Blog
Why did CBS take so long to reveal racist comments made by white participants inside the house-like set of its reality TV show Big Brother? And why have TV viewers, even now, only seen comments made by one person when several others did the same?
Why are efforts to compare the murder of Australian baseball player Chris Lane by three teens – one black, one bi-racial and one white – to George Zimmerman’s shooting of black teen Trayvon Martin ultimately unfair and inaccurate?
Why did the election of America’s first non-white president create more conversation about race difference, prejudice and stereotypes than less? And why are some people so angry about that?
If you have wondered about the answers to these questions or similar ones, I urge you to join me at 5:30 p.m. Friday (tomorrow) for a discussion and signing of my book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. ...
09/18/13 Music & Concerts
By Eric Deggans
Times Staff Writer
It started, as most things do for musicians, with Billy Cobham trying to make sure he could get another job.
The year was 1973, and Cobham knew the world-shaking jazz fusion band he had co-founded with guitarist John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was coming to an end. So he called up some friends — guitarist Tommy Bolin, bassist Leland Sklar, keyboardist Jan Hammer, acoustic bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Joe Farrell and a few others — spending about six hours over two days recording songs he wrote by picking out melodies, hunt-and-peck-style, on a piano....