Dailies: Breaking Bad, Westerns, and “Sci-Fi”

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Unlike yesterday, today is… one of those days: a little less energy, a little more time required to chew over some topics. If you haven’t had the chance already, take a gander at my older posts: there’s several now, and, I assure you, more is on the way. I’ve had some things to say about Breaking Bad, westerns, but… up to this point, strangely, nothing at all on science fiction. (More on that in a moment.) And I’ve been (as far as I can tell) a somewhat congenial critic, with only the slightest of snide remarks on a certain popular contemporary show. I’ve been, in other words, rather kind. Well, that all changes today. (And maybe it’s crabbiness at being tired. A little punchy now that the coffee’s hit my bloodstream and is battling it out with my fatigue. Not sure who I want to win.)

Recently, I had an interesting conflab about Breaking Bad with a participant in the Blogging 201 course, and we chatted about how we both gave the show a “second chance.” Maybe there’s a lot of people out there who can say that: according to Hollywood Reporter, guess what’s #2 on the most popular TV shows of all time? I don’t need a popularity contest to convince me, and frankly, I was expecting other crime dramas and comedies to oust the show from the top 10 (and Friends at number 1? Really?!). But what I wanted to say here is that Breaking Bad challenges us to like unlikable characters: that other blogger mentioned the fact that the characters were just hard to sympathize with, but I think the show is aware of this and, sneakily, compels us to like them anyway. And then feel bad about it afterwards. Even resentful. Well, in the spirit of this resentment, next Monday will feature “Why We Love Breaking Bad, Reason #3: The Primal Urge of Human Pride.” This is the reason why, for those of us who love the show, we hate Walter White.

Speaking of hate, is there a more despicable anti-hero than Ethan Edwards in The Searchers? Perhaps: our contemporary bad guys (like Walter White) are more seductively bad than those villains of the innocent 1950s. But John Wayne’s performance as the rabidly racist Confederate soldier in John Ford’s classic western offers another good case for “Why We Hate…” (And maybe that should be a new series, with some commentary on the value of hatred in a world that all too easily “Likes.”) The western—and a “Genre Review” post on the western—is one of those topics I’m chewing over, but expect to see a post on The Searchers, Stagecoach, and maybe another Ford classic sometime next week.  

And now, onto science fiction. (Too lazy for a proper segue there.) A genre that actually competed with the western in the 1950s. (Okay, so a segue after all.) According to Robert Kolker, “During the 1950s, the western served as a reassuring antidote to the paranoid narratives of the science fiction film.” As you’ll see in my Genre Review post next week, that paranoia did begin to gradually creep into the western, but it just couldn’t compete with the likes of Invaders from Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956). (That’s just a drop in the bucket, really.)

In a future post I might say a little about these old chestnuts, but what is certain is that I will offer my two cents on the difference between “sci-fi” and “science fiction.” Is there one? you might be asking. Yes. Just compare Transformers with District 9, or compare Independence Day with Bladerunner: if the most compelling component of the film is something blowing up or cool FX, it’s “sci-fi”; if, on the other hand, there’s an intelligent examination of the human condition in the context of technological advance, it’s “science fiction.” Transformers and Independence Day fall into the former category, while District 9 and Bladerunner fall into the latter category. What about those 1950s films? As with Breaking Bad, they’re worth a second look; but I would recommend what is probably the best science fiction film of that era: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Yes, the robot Gort is a bit laughable, but consider this: an extraterrestrial race invades earth—not to steal its women or natural resources, not to blow shit up; but to intervene to prevent nuclear holocaust. It’s a scenario that is explored in Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece Childhood’s End (1953), and (yes) it will probably get some attention in a future Genre Review.

(I find it hard to stop the flow of words when it comes to science fiction. So, I guess the coffee won, huh? Three more shows I admire, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all made the top 30 on the Hollywood Reporter list mentioned above. Dear old Star Trek, the original series, or TOS, as I like to call it, was 35, while TNG nailed the 55 position. Anyhow, you can check out the full list here.)

I’ll have more to say on all these things—Breaking Bad, westerns, sci-fi vs. science fiction—in the coming weeks, so this is only a preview. If you find any fightin’ words here, or something worth commenting on, let me know!

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