I don’t watch much television at all. Basically, what I’ve seen I generally haven’t really liked (with some definite exceptions). Those I’ve talked to about TV have heard me say this a million times: I hate television – and films for that matter – that over-explain. Dexter did that to me. Couldn’t watch it. I’m not a complete moron. I’m paying attention. Just move the story along, don’t repeat action in case I went to the kitchen for a minute.
I have recently been watching Breaking Bad. I love this show. I’m not fully caught up – still in the midst of season 3 – but it has all the right elements in place: great acting (Bryan Cranston deservedly gets a lot of love, but what about Aaron Paul? He’s awesome in this), really strong writing that rides an appropriate line between very dark, humanistic drama and very dark comedy, a complete lack of over-explanation, interesting directing, and sound design that takes as much of the aesthetic forefront as the visuals.
I’m not going to say too much about the show, especially since it’s currently airing, but I do want to make a bit more of a note on the sound design. The sound design is what you’d call hyper-diegetic. The show is filled with timelapses – the sun sets dramatically, cars flash by in blurs of neon, the clouds in the desert sky coil and roll away in extreme wide shots. The sound plan for BB has been, it seems, to take these time lapse motions and create a soundtrack to go alongside them that stresses the motion, has a real-world source, but is still a bit leaning towards the surreal. Case in point:
In season 2 there’s a shot outside of Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) house. It’s a nice suburban home that has been in turmoil because of Jesse’s involvement in the drug game (I feel qualified enough after watching this and The Wire to call it the drug “game.” I’m basically an expert). After some drama has gone down, and just before more is about to there’s a cut to this exterior wide-shot. Timelapse. The sun sets and rises. Cars whiz by. Someone on a bike crosses frame. All in fast motion. The sounds are appropriate and each has a sound, but many are intentionally over-realized. For example, as the sun rises and blazes through the trees it gives off a sizzling sound, as though the leaves and grass below are being burned through. The sun is hot – I feel learned enough to state that. Heat can burn – again, years of college at work here. But it is the rare occasion that eggs are actually fried via a sun-ray. Hyper-diegetic: taking a source (the sun), relating it to a logical aural phenomenon (heat) and making this sound illogically loud or present (burning/sizzle).
So why? What’s the point? Style alone? Well, in part, yes. It becomes a motif that the producers can stretch out over the course of a few seasons and not have to bottle into one 2-hour film. But hyper-sensitivity – in an internal sense of the phrase – is also a theme in the show. Walt (Cranston) has cancer and is a drug dealer. As his life crumbles the paranoia and sense of catastrophe that surrounds him builds into as much an internal as an external, familial conflict. The same is true for other characters who go through similarly traumatic experiences. Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) has a horrific run-in with a drug cartel at the border. His life and masculinity start to cave in. Mid-life crisis. Questions of identity.
In short, the sound design is an attempt to reveal the hidden and inner workings of a dual-nature world. The sun can just rise, or the sun can burn. A cloud can just drift, or a cloud can rush. In the same way, Walt, Hank, Jesse, et al spend a lot of time inside their own heads. So for Walt and his constant decision making he can be responsible husband (sun rising) or money-making, drug-dealing double-lifer (sun burning). Jesse can accept the responsibility of his actions and be sober good guy (cloud drifting) or he can misinterpret a counselor’s words, become resistant to emotion and the bad guy (cloud rushing).