From the Vault: Bryan Cranston’s Essential Soundtrack


As Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, actor Bryan Cranston transformed from the hapless dad in Malcolm in the Middle to a desperate man who cooks up an elaborate plan—along with plenty of meth—to provide for his family. Here, the two-time Emmy winner boils his life and loves down to an essential soundtrack.

This list is much more than just the songs I like. It is the soundtrack of my life. It pretty accurately expresses how music has influenced and shaped me over the past 54 years. What follows is chronological, not in terms of when the music was produced, but when it mattered to me. So, here it is: my life in 15 songs.

Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” I was popular in grade school, but that didn’t translate to being bold when it came to girls. Carolyn was a beautiful, fun girl who set my heart afire. I needed to ask her out. A graduation party at a friend’s house was my last chance. Paul and Art were harmonizing this song as I watched a new boy in school accomplish in two seconds what I couldn’t in two years. He went right up and asked her out. She said yes, and before the party was over they were making out on the living room couch. I was staggered, hurt and embarrassed. This song takes me back to that vulnerable time.

The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” My parents ended their marriage in the late ’60s. This song gave me an escape. I’d listen to it over and over again and it took me to another place: “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher. Come on baby, light my fire.” I was still a virgin then and wondered, Can a girl really light you on fire during sex?

Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” When I was 16, I followed my brother Kyle’s lead and joined the Los Angeles Police Department’s Explorer program. Every Saturday for eight weeks, I had to get up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Academy for training. The radio alarm was set to jolt me awake, and I liked not knowing what song it would be: Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” or maybe this one, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” In 1972, my Explorer troop traveled to Europe for a month. The official agenda was to learn from other police departments. The unofficial agenda was liquor and women—nirvana for a 16-year- old boy. After a few beers, a couple of the guys would break out guitars and play this song on a street corner. I’d accompany them (poorly) on my harmonica. To our surprise, passersby would drop coins in the hat, ensuring beer money for the next few days. This was also the trip where I lost my virginity to a very professional woman in Austria. I vowed to return one day to find it.

Elvis Presley’s “The Wonder of You.” In the mid-’70s, realizing I was never going to be a policeman, I took off with my brother from California on motorcycles. We traveled for two years with stops to avoid bad weather and to make money. Our destination of choice was Daytona Beach, Florida, where our cousins lived. One of them, Freddie, was accustomed to using his musical talents to pick up girls. We joined in. I honed my impression of Elvis Presley and even won a talent contest or two gyrating to his songs. It was a seminal moment when I realized that timidity wouldn’t win over girls. I changed overnight.

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Billy’s music reminds me of my years living in the Big Apple. Good times.

Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” How can anyone possibly listen to this classic and not be moved? Were my musical tastes maturing or was I still just trying to impress the ladies?

Nat King Cole’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” This was “our song” at my wedding to Robin in 1989. Sappy? Perhaps. But you bet it was sweet.

Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” On a thunderous, stormy night in Venice, on our honeymoon, we ducked into a church near St. Mark’s Square. We listened in awe as the musicians made this orchestration come alive.

George Strait’s “I Just Want to Dance with You.” I love this song’s simplicity. It compelled me to lift my new baby girl in my arms and dance her across the room every time it came on.

Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” I was fortunate to have a recurring role on Seinfeld as Tim Whatley, the gang’s dentist. I appeared in some iconic episodes, such as “The Yada Yada.” This song played at the farewell wrap party while clips and outtakes of the nine-year run were shown.

They Might Be Giants’ “Boss of Me.” This was Malcolm in the Middle’s theme song. That show changed America’s view of the modern family, and the experience changed my life forever.

Jack Johnson’s “Taylor.” My daughter’s name is Taylor, so this one is a must for obvious reasons.

Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” What I love about this song is not just that it affects me, but that it makes my girls sing and dance. There is joy in the world.

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I first heard this evocative cover at a graduation ceremony when my sister, Amy, received her master’s degree, a huge achievement considering our childhood. In a quiet moment, close your eyes and listen to this transcendent song. You’ll have the feeling you’re no longer in Kansas.

Photo by Randall Slavin. Styling by Vanessa Geldbach.

Newscaster Compares Shooting to Breaking Bad: Great Moments in Twitter Idiocracy

The season finale of Breaking Bad is still fresh on everyone’s minds. If you look on Buzzfeed and Reddit, you’ll see that a zillion people on the InterWeb who have rehashed posts tied to the series that made Heisenberg a household name. Why? Because any mention of Breaking Bad is going to grab web attention; some for the benefit of good, and some for the benefit of bad. (Do we really need YET another fanboy post about 10 alternative endings to the series finale?) 

One person who used Breaking Bad for the benefit of bad was Philadelphia Fox anchor Joyce Evans. To generate viewership for her newscast, the TV presenter took to Twitter and compared a deadly mass shooting of six people to the blood bath finale of the AMC TV show. She noted that the shooter involved in the "real life" crime was “breakin’ bad. (A 23-year-old man was killed and six others were wounded.)  Her Twitter news tease read:



Aaaaaaaah! Why is that sometimes I hate humanity!? Why don’t people think these things all the way through – before putting it out there into the world; especially if you’re a media figure hired to deliver real, "actual" news – and not fiction. Conversely, is our culture so immuned to violence that even a newscaster doesn’t know the difference? Naturally (and thank god) there was a large Twitter backlash to her inane statement (this was after anchorwoman Evans tried to backpeddle on her Tweet:


Breaking Bad is a TV show. Hank and Walter are fictional characters. The guy who played Gus is already working on other acting roles. 



–A Hunstville, Alabama reporter was fired for writing on her blog: “I’ve gone bra-less during a live broadcast and no one was the wiser;” “I am better live when I have no script and no idea what I’m talking about;” “My best sources are the ones who secretly have a crush on me,” and “I’m frightened of old people and I refuse to do stories involving them or the places they reside."

-FOX News asked scholar/PHD,  Reza Aslan, why a Muslim would write a book on Jesus. She compared such a feat to a Democrat writing about Ronald Reagan. Oh Jesus! 

-A rookie news anchor from Bismarck, North Dakota was fired on his very first newscast for blurting out,"fucking shit" – a mere one second into his newscast. Give this man a raise! 

-Bay Area news anchor Tori Campbell was reporting on an Asiana Airlines flight. She falsely identified the pilots as, "Capt. Sum Ting Wong," "Wi Tu Lo," "Ho Lee Fuk." and "Bang Ding Ow." Where the hell are the fact checkers? 

‘Breaking Bad”s Bryan Cranston Breaks a Short Film

Bryan Cranston is hot. The finale of his series Breaking Bad emptied the streets as fans gathered to celebrate and mourn. His movie career, after a pivotal role in the Best Picture of the Year Argo, has him in high-demand. With all this going on, he took a couple of days to shoot a short film, Writers Block, with an impromptu script. The film will screen this Sunday, October 6th at the Pine Box Rock Shop, (12 Grattan Street, Brooklyn.) There are seats available for those of you who need to feed your Bryan Cranston addiction. Lela Edgar, a brilliant photographer who has shot for this column, co-stars in this flick as the girl of his dreams.  She kissed our hero (on screen). Bryan Cranston took  time off from the Breaking Bad hype to make sure that some film people on the way up would break good. 



Writers block, a 2 day shoot, an impromptu script and a star that has become a diety how did you stay focused.? Were you starstruck?
Lela Edgar: Yes I suppose that’s true that Bryan has become a bit of a God to some!  To many it seems.  The second I met him though I felt instantly at ease so no, not really star struck.  He is down to earth and seems to simply enjoy the art of creating for all it’s worth so he is really easy to be around.  
Tell me about the film.
Well I don’t want to give too much away. Essentially, it explores a writer in the midst of his writer’s block, what that might look like.  But there is much open to interpretation. It was great fun to create as we had so few hours to do it and everyone had such enthusiasm for the project.  There is something great about a group of people coming together to create something out of thin air.
Why would Bryan do this?
That’s an excellent question. I remember being in awe of his character when he opted to create with a group of PA’s and others impromptu style.. just because. I think he wanted to be supportive of those at the beginning of their careers.  I also think he simply enjoys the creative process!
You play the girl of his dreams…literally… did you get to kiss him?  
Um.. yes.  He was perfectly lovely. Very much a gentleman.
This sunday there is a screening at the Pine Box Rock Shop, Brooklyn with all the hype around the season finale of breaking bad this should be huge.
Yes I started watching Breaking Bad recently myself.  I ended up binge watching all the seasons!  I think the screening will be a good time.  I look forward to being with a group of creative people and supporting this work.  There will be talk back immediately following the screening with myself and the editor of the film Erin Clancy. 
You are a great photographer—it’s your day job. How does it feel to be on that side of the lens?
Thanks. I love photography and it has provided some more fuel for the creative fire.  Being in front of the camera actually came first.  I used to work a bit in print in the olden days and I have been working as an actor on and off for about 10 years now.
What are you photography goals, ambitions and how about more acting? Did you catch the bug?
I caught the bug a long time ago actually.  I used to dress up as Shirley Temple on Thanksgiving no joke.  I wanted my family to think of me as an actress starting I would say age seven. I moved back from LA a year or so ago so I am still getting going here in New York. My goal of course is to be working nonstop. I love comedy and trained at Acme Comedy Theatre but I am also a lover of the deeper darker film. One of my dream directors for example would be David Lynch.
What’s next for writer’s block?
Writer’s Block is set to come out on ITunes this fall!

Bryan Cranston "Writer’s Block" Teaser from Brandon Polanco on Vimeo.


Main image – Photo by:  Jammi York, Styling by: Alisha Trimble

The End Of ‘Breaking Bad’: Did You Totally Call It?

Don’t worry, this will be a spoiler-free zone, but can I brag for a second here? Because the end of Breaking Bad? Well, I totally called it. Did you? No, I’m dead serious, I did. So remember when he…yeah! I knew he would about five weeks ago. You must remember me G-chatting you about that, don’t lie. Nothing gets past me.

And you know how the neo-Nazi gang—exactly. I’ve been saying that was going to happen. I was saying it during last Sunday’s episode, and you kept telling me to be quiet so you could hear what was happening right then. That’s how slow you are about premium TV dramas: you really have no clue what is going to happen until it does! God, do I feel sorry for you, experiencing all the surprises of fiction as they come.
I also 100% called the way Vince Gilligan chose to wrap up that other loose end but leave that other one dangling, I had that bit figured out all the way back in season three. Amateur foreshadowing, man. In fact, all the clues about the ending were right there in the opening shot of the series, if you look closely, which you clearly never do. Now there’s nothing left to do but actually watch the finale and see how right I was all along. Anybody want to come over?

BlackBook Archives: An Interview with ‘Breaking Bad”s Aaron Paul

To all of our hearts discontent, this weekend marks the end for one of television’s greatest dramas. Brilliantly scripted, directed, and acted since its pilot episode, Breaking Bad has spent the past the past six years penetrating our emotions and slicing up our nerves, as we’ve navigated through Walter White’s dangerous and painful world—following his evolution from everyday family man and chemistry teacher simply trying to better his family, to a morally unsound and deeply tortured head of a meth-making empire. In its final season, show-runner Vince Gilligan—along fantastic guest directors, such as Bryan Cranston himself to Rian Johnson and Michelle MacLaren—have crafted some of the most visceral and riveting episodes to date, plunging us into the harrowing darkness that has befallen characters that encompass the Albuquerque-set drama’s rough and dusty landscape.

And although everyone on the show has undergone a tremendous arc in character since the initial season in 2008, it’s Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman who has altered the most outside of Walt. When we first met Pinkman, he was all bitches and yo’s, perennially clad in over-sized clothing and just a messed up kid with a good heart trying to make some money and get high in the process. But over the course of the series, Pinkman has undergone trauma after trauma, attempting to learn from his mistakes and better those he’s hurt in the process, but it’s only landed him amidst the deepest of hells. And fortunately for Paul, who has  “a face like a Boy Scout and an Idaho-inflected timbre flattening his vowels,” embodying the role of Pinkman—so far removed from his own personality— has earned him two Emmys Awards and four nominations thus far.
Back in the spring of 2011, I got the chance to chat with Paul about the upcoming fourth season of the show, the absolute joy of being a part of the cast, and a bit of starstruck Lost talk in between. The resulting conversation was used in a profile of Paul that ran in our 2011 Summer issue, but today, with the series finale airing this Sunday, we thought we’d share our full conversation with Paul for you. And my, how the times have changed.
Where are you right now?
I am in LA I just flew in late last night. We’re still shooting right now, I came straight from work to come into town for the. We’re on episode ten, we have three more to go.
How’s the shooting going?
It’s good we definitely take it to another level, it’s a much crazier ride this year.
You’ve had a lengthy shooting hiatus, no?
Yeah, we had a full year off. Usually we have about six months but this year we pushed by six months but I did a little traveling.
Where’d you go?
I went through Canada, New York, London, and then just kind of laid around and relaxed, and tried to get myself a job. I finally attached myself to something at the very end of the hiatus, a little indie film that we shot in Detroit.
It’s called Cripple, as of right now–it’s a true story about this guy is really successful mortgage broker, but he’s also a big partier and loves to drink and loves women, and one night he is celebrating and he dives into a lake fully-clothed when he’s drunk and ends up shattering his spine and breaking his neck, and becomes quadriplegic. So it’s about him coming to terms with his new existence and trying to see if he can overcome his new harsh reality. He does, and it’s a really inspiring story.
Was it a big transition for you, stepping from Jesse into that role?
I always find myself gravitating towards different characters. I’m definitely more of a character actor more than anything else; that’s my goal at least in life. This guy was definitely not “normal” he was definitely a wild child, which is always fun to play, but I’m the polar opposite of Jesse who is, well, one of a kind.
When you first signed on for the pilot of Breaking Bad, or even into the first season, did you have any idea how successful it would be?
Yeah no, I had no idea. I know personally it was one of the best things I’ve ever read and definitely the best pilot that had ever been placed in front of me. But after I read it, I was like, wait there’s no way in hell this would ever get picked up or see the light of day—this is not a television show, especially on AMC. When I read this, this is before AMC had any original programming, this was before Mad Men had come out. They were shooting the first season of Mad Men but it hadn’t aired yet, and I didn’t know AMC was doing original programming and trying to push their network by putting a show on that has to do with cooking and selling crystal meth. We pitched that show to people, and it’s a hard pitch because it’s not just about a guy deciding to cook and sell crystal meth because he’s dying of lung cancer, it’s about making really bad decisions for, at the end of the day, a really good reason. What would you do for your family? What would you do if you were pushed into a corner like that? I had never read anything like it.
A lot of people think you just crawled out of the woodwork, but you’ve been acting for quite a while now. 
I was on the original Beverly Hills 90210, that’s totally going to age me. It was one of my first jobs and I remember thinking to myself, “Oh my god, I’m on 90210 right now.”
Was it one of those things where you were watching it one day and the next thing you know you were on it?
Yeah, it was such a huge success, I came out and auditioned for it and then booked it and then a week after I was done from Melrose offered me this role and I really thought my career was about to take off—but then I just stopped working for a while. So you just never know.
Originally, Jesse was intended to be killed off Breaking Bad. So once it was resolved that he would stay, how much of the character was developed for you and how did you get to know him.
I had no idea who this kid was. I had read the pilot and I think they had an idea where they were going to take this role, but they also thought they were going to kill off Jesse at the end of the first season. So going into it, even now, I definitely feel like I have a grasp of who this kid is for sure, but starting off I was going in blind really from what I gathered from the 50 or 60 pages. I read in the pilot but the more and more scripts I got, the more backstory I got, and realized what he was all about and then started molding it from there. But I always try and do something that’s completely opposite from who I am.
A lovable meth addict is a rare character, I’d say.
So many people come up to me and say, “Oh my god, you’re my favorite lovable drug addict!” But it’s true, he’s truly just a lost kid, he got mixed up in the wrong crowd. When you first meet him, you don’t know if he’s bad, but then you realize he’s not a bad soul, he’s just trying to make a buck. He is cooking and selling drugs and I guess technically that is wrong, but I don’t think deep deep down he’s a horrible human being—he’s just trying to survive.
For all of the show’s danger and darkness, there’s a bizarre comedic sensibility that always manages to make it’s way through the cracks in the strangest moments, which I love.
It was like that from day one.
Were you a fan of Bryan before working with him on this?
A huge fan! And he pops up in everything. But I had never seen him do any dramatic material, and I knew he was involved when I read the pilot and thought it was a really interesting choice. He was obviously a talented, talented man, but I had no idea to what extent. Once I started working him he blew me and the audience away. He’s just such an open book and he gives so much. He’s truly such a mentor of mine and I’ve learned from him and from day one.
Are you two close?
Oh, we are. We’ve have a great relationship. Our entire cast does; we have such a good time. We know that this is so rare, and not just the show itself, but just the connection we all have is very rare. I’ve been doing this for fourteen plus years and I’ve never experienced anything like this—not even close. But it’s truly like a home away from home and doesn’t feel like work at all. That’s when it gets a little sad, but it’s so fun from top to bottom everyone has a blast.
The bloopers are so great to watch. I imagine you have to keep things light on set when you’re delving into really rough territory on show, as to not let that completely bring you down.
We have to. Bryan says if we don’t do this, we’ll just get sucked down this dark depression. We have to break the tension with humor. I think what’s so great about the show itself, it’s not just dark—there are some really funny elements to the show; you find yourself laughing at very bizarre things.
Like the bath tub scene.
Jesse is pouring acid on dead human flesh and you’e laughing.
How involved do you get with Jesse, in terms of where the writers are taking the role?
I might chime in every now and then, but at the end of the day the writers do their thing and they’re brilliant at it. I love to be surprised just like an audience member would be. We’re all salivating to get the next episode just like everyone is waiting to see the next show. I always think it’s going in one direction and it’s the complete opposite. I thought the second season was pretty dark and in the third it got more intense, but this season—obviously with Gus and his whole situation—he’s like this silent villain. He’s so menacing. Season four is just…it’s the darkest thing I’ve ever experienced.
Last season ended on an incredibly intense note. I have no idea where you guys will even go from there. But you’ve now won an Emmy, how was that experience for you and did you ever imagine you’d be up on that stage?
I wish I would have said this one stage, but I was so out of my mind—I was a hundred percent prepared to just go to the Emmys and have a good time and not have to go up on stage to talk in front of all these people. I was looking forward to that and was totally happy just to be invited to the party. I was honored just to be in the same breath as these people. I’m also the biggest Lost fanatic—what Michael Emerson did with Ben Linus is remarkable; anytime I watch him onscreen I’m utterly speechless. And what Terry O’Quinn did with John Locke, he totally played two characters; he’s so great, he’s so good. I got so starstruck when I was walking the carpet and it was the first time I met Terry O’Quinn, and I was like, “Oh my god that’s John Locke!” I went up to him and introduced myself. I don’t know if he knew who I was, but I told him I was such a huge fan and he thanked me and continued on his way. I was like, “I just have to tell you, I can’t believe I’m here, let alone you and I are in the same category together.” And then I saw a lightbulb go off and then he told me congratulations. He actually tracked me down at the Governor’s Ball and told me congratulations. And Michael Emerson, who I’ve known through years now through random events and me accosting him and kissing his feet, he is such a huge supporter and he’s incredible.
And to have you and Bryan both win.
Literally, when I hugged Bryan, I hugged him and told him I had no idea what I was going to say. Going up on stage I went into another world, and then walking off I had all my friends with me. They were all outside of the auditorium, and all the girls were crying their eyes out and my buddies were sobbing as well. One of friends was crying and he couldn’t be in public, so he ran to the bathroom and he was just in the bathroom letting it out and Michael C. Hall was in there and was like, “Are you okay?” and he was like, “Yeah, my buddy just won an Emmy! I’m so happy for him, I just can’t believe this is happening.”
Pouring out your heart to M.C. Hall in the bathroom, a dream.
Can’t beat that.
Have things change for you now that you’ve been on the show and won an Emmy, are you getting offered more roles and do you feel your perception has changed?
Offers, no. I wish. Let’s be honest. No, I mean, I think people see me in a different light. I’ve just been doing it for so long and I’ve known a lot of the people in this business forever, but I think maybe that validates that I’m not going anywhere and I’m not going to give up on this dream of mine. Hopefully it will open some people’s eyes and give me a job.
Are you able to relate to the drug use in the show—not in a personal way but towards more of the what it means for these characters?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean right now where Jesse’s head’s at it’s so hard to relate, but where Jesse’s head’s at in terms of the whole relationship he has with drugs and the chemical romance he ended up having with Jane, I absolutely can relate to that. I mean I’ve seen what drugs can turn people into; I’ve seen beautiful creatures completely lost to the drug world, and I can see their souls slowly drifting away—just gone, especially with meth in particular. I’m so happy I’ve never had an issue like that, but I’ve seen how drugs can completely take over one’s life and at a certain point the people think that they have control over the drug, but then in a matter of moments the drug has complete 100% control over them. The only way to stop is if they have help or if they hit their rock bottom.
I think what people love so much about the show is how far it’s outside of our daily lives and so removed from what we see everyday but you can still relate to these characters and the things they struggle with.
Totally, that’s why I applaud the writers. When I read this pilot, I thought there was no way this was going to be show on TV, this is not a story that a network is going to want to tell. But the thing is, it’s a story that needs to be told—and this stuff happens. When we were shooting the pilot it was like art imitating life: a principal at a school was arrested because he was selling crystal meth to his students. So it’s out there, and a lot of people are scared to tell the stories. Before our show aired AMC, they were getting a lot of harsh criticism saying, “Shame on you guys for supporting a show that glamorizes crystal meth,” but then once we aired, obviously all those people realized that it wasn’t glamorizing it at all—it’s showing the harsh reality of this world. And no one in their right mind would trade lives with these characters.
So has the show given you a new perception on the drug world and drug dealers?
Yeah, 100%. When you think about the drug world, you think it’s this cut and dry type thing, but there’s so many different layers and different reasons why people get into this world and get trapped in it and it’s so sad.
Do you find meth addicts seeking you out and talking to you?
It happens quite a bit, to be honest. And every single one has been a positive experience. I’ve had people get really, really, emotional and they will start shaking and say, “Thank you, thank you for being a part of a show that makes me constantly realize and remember why I am clean and sober.” It’s not like people that are sober watch it and they’re itching to start using, it’s a reminder that hey, this is a horrible existence, stay as far away from this as possible.
How did you prep for this new season?
This new season was completely different than anything else because where Jesse’s head’s at, I mean you can do research, but nothing you can really dive in one on one. Obviously, the final frames of season three is of Jesse pulling a trigger, I feel it’s truly like he’s in a very intense head space.
That final moment, just the shot of your face holding the gun, that single shot was deserving of an Emmy itself.
Thank you, I would hug you if you were here. That’s literally how the next season starts, and he’s in a pretty dark place. It definitely picks up where we left off; not a lot of time has passed. When I say that this season is much bigger and darker than anything anything I’ve ever experienced, I just mean in terms of where all these characters are heading and where they’re at emotionally and physically. It’s more of like an internal emotional journey with these characters this season. It’s really great, I’m really curious to see what people’s thoughts are.
You’ve also been on Big Love this year, how have you been managing between these two television worlds?
That was great, the first couple seasons of Breaking Bad I was going back and forth. I would literally start the same day. Big Love would shoot in Valencia and Breaking Bad would shoot in Albuquerque, so I would just fly back and forth. I felt like I had split personalities, but it was my dream to just play such polar opposite characters. I feel like I find myself in between those two roles in reality, so it’s nice to just slip on different skins.
And after being there for frequently, you’ve become a big fan of Albuquerque.
Oh yeah, I love it. The first couple seasons, when I shot the pilot in Albuquerque, I was stuck in a little hotel and it wasn’t near anything. So all I did was hang out in the hotel and go to work; I didn’t get to experience all that is New Mexico. I was thinking to myself, oh dear god if the show gets picked up we’re going to have to shoot it here? The was my original reaction, but once we got picked up, I actually got a place and got to explore the city. Then I got to explore the state and I fell so in love with it and I’m obsessed. I’m a home owner there now and very proud of it. Albuquerque is so much of another character of the show,it’s a huge part. The landscape and the skies are endless.
A very doomed sense of emptiness.
The landscape just seems to desolate and lonely and that’s exactly where all of these characters are at a certain point. They’re very, very lonely and searching and searching. It’s such a great fit, it’s perfect.

Alternate Emmys: A Look Back on The Year in Cable TV

I did not watch Sunday night’s annual Emmy ceremony. The Oscars take up all my live-award-show frustration, and the choices of Emmy voters baffle me even more than the Academy’s  (Jeff Daniels over Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston? What?). But glancing at the list of nominees —specifically in the Drama category—and reflecting on the wealth of amazing series I’ve compulsively binged on this season (Sept. 2012-Sept. 2013), it occurred to me that this may in fact be the best year of television ever

The creative revolution in cable TV content , that began in 1999 with The Sopranos, has reached such a deafening pitch in quality, that for the first time in my movie-obsessed life, I’m uncertain which medium I’d pick if given a choice: this year’s offerings on the big screen…or its smaller, once-thoroughly-minor-but-now-kicking-all-kinds-of-unholy-ass cousin. Now, I’m not saying this year contains the best shows ever made. Arguably, that would be 2004, which—surfing the first great wave of cable TV—contained The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under, all airing a few months apart on HBO. I like to think the second great wave began in 2007, when AMC took a piece of the premium pie with Mad Men, followed by Breaking Bad a year later.   

And this year, with Netflix changing the game by releasing entire seasons of original content at once, I believe the third great wave of the cable revolution has kicked off, with HBO now fighting for the quality crown amidst a whole host of contenders, including Sundance, Showtime, and F/X, with many, many more about to leap into the ring to join them. All this to say that the sheer breadth and diversity of essential cable series has now resulted in the first Top 10 list I’ve ever made for TV, with last Sunday’s Emmys providing the perfect excuse to share it.  


Game of Thrones – Season 3 (HBO)

Combine the scope of Lord of the Rings with the character complexity of The Sopranos, and you’ve got the most addictive show on television, which hit a shocking dramatic peak with its now infamous "Red Wedding" episode at the climax of the third season. Marginally lessened by its smattering of laughably gratuitous sex scenes and one particularly un-necessary torture sub-plot, HBO’s medieval fantasy epic is nevertheless top-tier stuff, and a case study in great book-to-screen adaptations, despite the millions of angry nerd cries  bemoaning changes to GRR Martin’s beloved novels. The sheer confidence with which it juggles its sprawling cast of characters and storylines, while consistently subverting  and twisting expectations, has provided some of the most devastating and instantly iconic moments of the current pop culture landscape.

MVP: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, for turning what began as a hiss-worthy villain into the shows’ most complex and strangely sympathetic character, Jaimie Lannister.  


Mad Men – Season 6 (AMC)

Every year, Mad Men assumes a familiar cycle, as people complain that the show isn’t "going anywhere" for its first four or five episodes, then subsequently watch in astonishment as each season aspires to—and attains—the artistic heights of great American literature. And with 1968 as its backdrop, the petty ambitions, jealousies and affairs of Sterling-Cooper’s ad agency culminated in one of the most moving, thematically satisfying season finales of its six season run.  

MVP: Jon Hamm, for taking Don Draper’s sixth cycle on the self-destructive merry go round to its darkest depths, and emerging with unexpected, redemptive grace.


Boardwalk Empire – Season 3 (HBO)

This criminally underrated show, which many gave up on during its first, feet-finding season, finally became the great, classic gangster epic it’s been building towards for the last three years. Every single character in its impressive cast was provided with a fantastic arc, as the over-arching narrative—the birth of organized crime in America —coalesced into its most mythic season, bringing its young Capones, Lanskys and Lucianos in direct conflict (or collusion) with Steve Buscemi’s semi-fictional head of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson.  

MVP: Bobby Canavale, for providing an electrifying season villain, by turns funny, charming and psychotic – often all at once.


Top of the Lake – 6 Episode Mini-Series (Sundance)

Fusing the moral twilight of (the original) The Killing with the eeriness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, this six episode mini-series is by far the best thing Jane Campion has directed since The Piano. Elizabeth Moss slightly fudges her New Zealand accent, but gives a committed, nuanced performance as the detective investigating a young girl’s  disappearance in a poor, mountainous region of New Zealand. As the case entwines itself with the secrets of her own past, each episode unflinchingly takes the audience to disturbingly dark places, but with Campion’s unique perspective on the toll it takes for strong-willed women to forge their way through male-dominated social hierarchies (police and criminal alike). Haunting, nail-bitingly tense, and ultimately profound, Top of the Lake is pure cinema in TV clothing.  

MVP: Peter Mullan, as the terrifying leader of a homegrown drug ring, equal parts menace and tragic pathos.  


Parade’s End’ – 5 Episode Mini-Series (BBC America/HBO)

This adaptation of a classic novel is British TV drama at its finest, a stunningly scripted labor of love by Tom Stoppard, with astonishing performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and newcomer Adelaide Clemens. Charting a love triangle that evolves over the course of Britain entering the First World War, it’s a rich, fascinating exploration of the values different people cling to, or shed, as the world changes around them—as well as one of the most genuinely romantic stories you’ll ever see.  

MVP: Adelaide Clemens, for embodying what could have so easily been a fantasy of purity and innocence with grounded intelligence, vulnerability and strength.  


Breaking Bad – Season 5.1 (AMC)

Only eight episodes long, the first half of Breaking Bad‘s final, devastating conclusion is mostly set-up for its currently airing conclusion, which is possibly the single most riveting season of television in history. While perhaps less satisfying as a stand-alone season—especially compared to its previous arcs—5.1 is still an essential chapter in the saga of Walter White, described by its creator (Vince Gilligan) as one man’s journey "from Mr.Chips to Scarface." The amazing train heist episode ("Dead Freight") is a clear highlight, and the seamless mix of comedy, tragedy, and thriller elements against New Mexican suburbs and deserts, still combine to create one of the most utterly unique shows around.   

MVP: The best soundtrack choices of the year, bar none.  


Enlightened – Season 2 (HBO)

Tragically under-seen, this small gem concluded its two-season story arc, perhaps in the knowledge that it would inevitably be cancelled. Show-runner Mike White’s portrait of an idealistic narcissist waging a one woman war against the evil corporation she works at, is sharp, wickedly funny character-based satire, but with a deeply compassionate heart. Laura Dern gives the performance of her career as Amy Jellicoe, as frustrating and cringe-inducing as she is ultimately heroic. By both tearing down easy new age philosophies, while also examining the complex and profound yearnings for harmony and truth beneath them, Enlightened never gives in to pat, easy answers, but rests in its questions with intelligence, humor and grace. I especially loved how the show allowed itself to sometimes give entire episodes to a supporting character’s point of view, which often produced the most affecting highs of a great final season.    

MVPs: An incredible roster of guest directors, including Jonathan Demme, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, and David Michod.  


Rectify – Season 1 (Sundance)

Another criminally under seen gem, this small, well-observed drama about a man emerging from 20 years on death row, is well worth catching up with. Like its main character, it takes the time to soak in the tiny, telling details that we so often take for granted in our "free" lives, as well as the deep questions that result from a world view created behind bars. It’s a slow burn, but always an immersive one, and over the course of its short six episode first run, an incredibly moving journey into a man’s damaged, but endlessly curious soul. And the good news is that it’s been renewed for a second season, so catch up now while you have the chance.  

MVP: Aiden Young, for saying more with his eyes than most actors do with entire seasons of dialogue.  


Orange is the New Black – Season 1 (Netflix)

Adopting a similar comedy-drama tone to her previous show, Weeds, Jenji Kohan’s second stab at cable TV is a real grower, and paints its world of a women’s minimum security prison with well researched insight and depth. What’s most surprising is how elements that are initially off-putting, such as the very white middle class heroine’s cutesy relationship with her straight-laced fiancee, ultimately work in service to the story itself, as Piper Chapman’s world and sense of who she is are gradually stripped away, piece by piece. And while she serves as an effective identification window for the audience, it’s the show’s dedication to exploring its large supporting cast of characters that makes this something special.  

MVP: the casting directors, for filling the prison with real, believable women instead of Hollywood starlets.  


Girls – Season 2 (HBO)

Lena Dunham’s divisive, controversial, look at the lives of four young women navigating life in Brooklyn, is in many ways the anti-Sex and the City, more interested in ugly truths than easy trend-setting. Her characters are often selfish, tactless, insecure and hurtful, yet always compelling, and often very, very funny. It’s perhaps the most accurate account of what being young and broke in New York City is like, and how painful and confusing it can be to figure out our own identity while we’re so busy presenting one to a world that demands us to be fully formed in order to meet it. And it’s fascinating to watch such a young writer-performer develop her voice, sometimes stumbling, but always bravely reaching to create art that rings true.  

MVP: Lena Dunham, for her fearlessly authentic nudity onscreen, to the dismay of internet body fascists everywhere.  


Honorable Mentions

Homeland S2 was a ton of compulsive fun, if guilty of a few ridiculous plot twists too many (Wi-Fi dispensed heart attack? Come on now). Treme S3 was as enjoyable and affectionate a trip to New Orleans as ever, if a tad meandering. House of Cards was compelling and entertaining, if not quite as smart as it wanted to be. Veep S2  was a blast of great satire, but more of a dessert than a main course.

About The Final Episode Of ‘Dexter’

Yeah, yeah, I know the joke’s on me for even watching this show to the bitter last, through all eight—eight!—seasons, riding out what horrible twist after another, half-baked subplots and supporting characters that went nowhere, goofy voiceover and whopping implausibility, in the expectation of what, exactly? I’ve abandoned other series for much less. So maybe there’s something to recommend here after all.

The finale was, like most of the series, rather bad—but in this case, it’s because it reached for something grand and somber, in the tradition of other “serious” dramas, lacking any of the camp that made the show such a guilty pleasure. The fact remains, too, that Dexter wasn’t really a show that was building toward an ending. It was more of a comic book, a creep-of-the-week feature. To try and conclude it on this elegiac tone, with a real misstep of a final scene, was to deny Dexter’s narrative DNA.
I don’t think anybody watched Dexter for the story arcs, really. It was just another antihero fable with a nifty hook, but one that didn’t beat around the bush with its messy, cathartic killings. It was willfully cheesy, the only program of that genre willing to embrace high-wire soap opera status. Screening an episode left you chuckling and shaking your head, while stuff like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad had you wound up and shaking by the credits. As with the programming of a generation before, it allowed you to turn your brain off. Blood and guts without the consequences. In other words: TV.

HBO’s ‘True Detective’ Should Make Winter Extra-Gritty

With Breaking Bad and Dexter both on their way out for good, and True Blood nearly wrapped up as well, premium cable is going to be hurting for both outlandish crime potboilers and a dose of Southern Gothic ooze. By all indications, HBO will be filling the void with True Detective, a drama series starring Matthew McConaughey alongside Woody Harrelson—one cool thing about the “Golden Age of TV” is that every A-lister seems to want a show of their own. 

Yes, it’s another of those unraveling-an-unspeakable-secret-in-a-rural-or-small-town stories, somewhat in the tradition of Top of the Lake, as well as The Killing, the Red Riding trilogy, BBC’s The Edge of Darkness, and Twin Peaksgoing back finally all the way to The Wicker Man, whose cultish overtones are apparent in the creepy Blair Witch­-like folk art we see dangling from trees in this clip. But we ought not to let this clear lineage—nor the reality of McConaughey being out of his depth against an actor like Harrelson (only one of these guys would show up in a Coen brothers movie)—depreciate our love for gory, unsettling mysteries.
And there does seem to be a promising twist on this familiar material: the two leads are pursuing their Louisiana serial killer over the course of seventeen years—well, actually, think Zodiac—and the show will have the multiple timelines to flesh that out. In the preview, for example, we see what appears to be a flash-forward to a slightly drunk McConaughey telling other cops the whole sordid story. A promising framing device, we hope, and not some more Lost-style shenanigans. Either way, we’re in for a TV show’s TV show.     

Your Friday Morning Treat: The ‘Breaking Bad’ Audition Tapes

To all of our hearts’ discontent, this weekend marks the beginning of the end for one of televisions greatest dramas. We’ve spent the past six seasons navigating our way through Walter White’s dangerous and emotionally painful world, following his evolution from everyday family man and chemistry teacher just trying to better his family to a morally unsound and possibly evil head of a meth-making empire. But this Sunday, the second half of the Breaking Bad’s final season will kick off, and although we’ve been waiting with baited breath to see just what happens post-Hank’s mid-toilet revelation, you can’t help but wish it would never end.

So before we mentally transport ourselves down to Albuquerque with Walt, Hank, Jesse, Skyler and the rest of cast of brilliant characters stemmed from showrunner Vince Gilligan’s wild mind, let’s take a look back on the auditions that landed them there. From Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, and Dean Norris, we see the seeds of character taking hold that would later blossom into truly memorable and fantastic performances. Open Culture also recalls Rachel Syme’s New Yorker post in which she said: 
Breaking Bad is the first story to truly commit the full spectrum of New Mexico to film…The grandiose vistas, the soaring altitudes, the banal office complexes, the Kokopellis and Kachina dolls, the seamy warehouses, the marshmallow clouds. The show seems to root itself deeper in the landscape with every new montage. It has become our newest monument.
When we spoke to Paul back before the show’s fourth season, he admitted: “I thought there was no way in hell this was going to see the light of day…I read the pilot before AMC had any original programming, before Mad Men had even come out.” And speaking of his loving co-star Bryan Cranston, said: “He gives me so much and he’s truly such a mentor of mine…I’ve learned from him that since we’re on a show like this, we have to break the tension with humor, and if we don’t, we’ll get sucked down into a dark depression.” As for Cranston, his audition might have just been that excellent episode of The X-Files, "Drive," in which he starred.
Take a look at the tapes below.