Sufferin’ Snakes!!!

Happy 82nd birthday to The Green Hornet; one of my top five most favorite old-time radio shows of all time. I should’ve written a worthy tribute myself, but this will do in a pinch. It’s from the Radio Spirits blog, which sponsors the Radio Classics channel on SyriusXM and still offers digitally remastered shows for sale, believe it or not.

“He hunts the biggest of all game! Public enemies who try to destroy our America!”
January 31, 2018

By Ivan G Shreve Jr

In the annals of radio broadcasting, Detroit, Michigan’s WXYZ was a truly remarkable station. It would introduce one of the medium’s larger-than-life heroes
(and a genuine pop culture icon) in The Lone Ranger in 1933. Ten years later, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (described by more than a few as “The Lone
Ranger on ice”) was added to its panoply of juvenile heroes. In between those successful programs came The Green Hornet, which premiered over WXYZ on this
very date.

It was station owner George W. Trendle, giddy over the success of The Lone Ranger, that suggested to WXYZ director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker
that they pursue a second radio series along the same lines. After kicking ideas back and forth, it was decided to tweak the Ranger formula (an individual
facing off against the forces of corruption prevalent in both politics and society) to give it a modern-day bent. The legend has it that Trendle was obsessed
with using a bee as a symbol for the new hero, purportedly due to an incident in which he spent a sleepless night in a hotel room with a trapped bee buzzing

The show’s original title was The Hornet. Trendle wasn’t completely satisfied with this; he was concerned about possible legal problems since that same
title had been used for a previous radio series. After a discussion on the color of the hornet (pink, blue, chartreuse), it was decided that their hornet
would sport a hue of green. (I read somewhere that “green hornets” are the angriest of their kind—but I am not going to say this with any degree of authority,
because I make it a point to stay away from any kind of hornet, regardless of their color.)

It probably didn’t escape the notice of those listeners who tuned into The Green Hornet that there were a number of similarities between the series and
the earlier Ranger. The Ranger’s mode of transportation was “his great horse Silver,” while the Hornet tooled around in a sleek, black automobile dubbed
“The Black Beauty.” Both heroes operated outside the law (though they themselves were not lawless), and for their trouble were occasionally believed by
law enforcement to be engaging in criminal behavior (though it always seemed that The Hornet got the worst of this—all the Ranger had to do was show skeptics
a silver bullet to remove all doubt). And like the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion Tonto,” the Green Hornet had his own sidekick in a Filipino
valet named Kato. Kato, like his boss, was not what he seemed: he functioned as the Hornet’s chief-cook-and-bottle-washer, but he was quite schooled in
chemistry (the Hornet’s gas gun and smokescreens were his designs) and the art of Oriental combat. Kato also knew the Green Hornet’s true identity: Daily
Sentinel publisher Britt Reid.

That last name may ring a familiar bell. As the mythology of The Lone Ranger developed over the years, the folks at WXYZ gave their masked hero a certain
backstory: he had been Texas Ranger John Reid. And in a number of Lone Ranger episodes, he would ride with his young nephew, Dan Reid. The Green Hornet’s
writers later capitalized on this familial connection by revealing that Dan Reid was the father of Britt, who had quite a surprise for his pa when he revealed
that he was more than just a callow millionaire playboy. As the cherry on top of this sundae, the elderly Dan Reid was played by John Todd—who played Tonto
on The Lone Ranger.

Did anyone else but Kato (and later Dan Reid) know that Britt Reid and The Green Hornet were one and the same? Well, Britt’s secretary Lenore Case (“Miss
Case” to Britt; “Casey” to pretty much everyone else) certainly suspected that something was up. In the final years of The Green Hornet’s radio run, she
had put two and two together…but kept the information to herself. One person who did not suspect was Michael Axford, a cantankerous Irishman who started
out on the series as Reid’s bodyguard, but eventually wound up as one of the Sentinel’s reporters. (And you thought Sean Penn was responsible for the death
of journalism.) Axford could certainly handle himself in a tough scrape, but he served mostly as the program’s comic relief, forever railing against “that
no-good spalpeen, the Har-nut!” Other Sentinel employees included the paper’s ace reporter Ed Lowry and resourceful female photographer “Clicker” Binney.

When The Green Hornet premiered over WXYZ in 1936, the titular hero was played by actor Al Hodge. Hodge became so identified as “the Har-nut” that when
Universal brought the crime fighter to the silver screen in the form of a 1940 serial, they had Hodge dub the voice of the Hornet. (He was physically portrayed
by Gordon Jones.) Hodge would be replaced by Robert Hall in 1943, and Hall himself would be relieved by Jack McCarthy in 1946. McCarthy continued in the
role until the series rounded up its last evildoer on December 5, 1952 as the familiar strains of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee played
the program out. (Another similarity to The Lone Ranger was the use of familiar classical music pieces as their theme music.)

Copyright 2016 Ivan G Shreve Jr and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.

This article gets a few things wrong:

Al Hodge played Britt Reid/The Hornet from 1936 to 1944 when he was drafted. During his absence, both A. Donovan Faust and Robert Hall carried the role until Hodge’s return in January of 1945. Hodge continued the role for eight months, departing for New York in September, at which point Robert Hall again resumed the role for nearly two years, until July of 1947, when Jack McCarthy took over the role for the duration of the series’ run.

Kato’s ethnicity was not always Filipino. For the first five years of the program, Kato was Japanese, even being played by a Japanese actor. His heritage mysteriously changed at or near the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Lenore Case did indeed learn the true identity of the Green Hornet, but the article states that she kept it to herself. This is incorrect. Casey figured it out, but Britt took her into his confidence and often called upon her assistance to nail a bad guy. Police Commissioner Higgins also learned the Hornet’s identity and provided aid behind the scenes, which lent the Hornet an air of legitimacy as the ‘50’s approached and law and order became the standard of entertainment in the wake of World War II.

The Green Hornet deserves his due because he was the first masked vigilante of the modern era. He came before Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and even the crimefighting radio version of The Shadow. He was the true renegade, going after the villains who were too smart to be caught by legal means. This, of course, put him at odds with the cops. He did not possess any super powers; he could not fly or bend steel with his bare hands. He did not own an arsenal of fancy gadgetry and he didn’t operate in a secret underground cave. All he had was Kato, a gas gun, a super-fast car and his brains.

One final note… A guy named Martin Grams wrote an extensive book about the Green Hornet in all of his incarnations; radio show, movie serials, TV series and comics. It has always been my dream to read this book, but Mr. Grams refuses to make it available to because he fears it will be pirated. I bought a copy of the book and sent it off to a Bookshare transcriber, but never heard another word. This was five years ago. This is such a niche item that I doubt I will ever get to read it. So, Mr. Grams, you can kiss my ass, ya spalpeen! I hope a real hornet stings you right in the eye!

“I am Awake.”

On New Year’s Eve Day, my dad texted me and said:

“Have been watching Breaking Bad this afternoon. What a mess.”

I didn’t ask him if he meant that in a good or bad way. I merely responded, “That is my fave show of all time.”

It turned out that Dad was watching one of several Breaking Bad marathons that AMC was airing in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the premier of the series. Today marks the exact anniversary.

A little over four years ago, Breaking Bad ended its five-year run. As tribute, I authored three blog entries explaining why, in my opinion, Breaking Bad was (and still is) the best television series ever to be produced.

You guys remember my rather protracted ‘Deep Shadow’ rant? Just imagine three back-to-back entries just as long; maybe longer.

Since then, my old blog disappeared, which caused me to create this one. My attention span, along with that of the entire nation, seems to have diminished in the intervening years. I don’t have the wherewithal to try to replicate those entries. Still, I do think a commemorative tribute to Breaking Bad is in order.

A quick breakdown of BB for those who were under a rock from about 2010 through 2013. Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an over-qualified high school chemistry teacher who discovers that he has lung cancer. In order to provide for his family when/if he succumbs, he decides to partner up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and cook crystal meth. This leads to all manner of chicanery as Walt and Jesse rise from two bumbling fools cooking in an RV in the desert to Walt assuming the position as the most powerful drug kingpin in the greater Southwest. Meanwhile, Walt has to duck his brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), who just happens to be a DEA agent, as well as his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who is not the typical clueless or willfully ignorant TV wife of other crime shows.

Why is Breaking Bad the best show of all time, in my view? There are many reasons. The biggest also serves as the chief metaphor of the show; chemistry.

Why was the original Star Wars movie such a sensation? Talent had a lot to do with it, but it was as much about timing. America was in a bit of a blue funk in the latter half of the ‘70’s and a movie about a hopeful battle against an evil galactic empire was just the thing the country needed to spark its collective imagination.

Flash forward to 2008. TV critics call the period between 1999 and the present, “The second golden age of television.” This was evidenced by monster hits such as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Mad Men. These were all shows that were broadcast on cable TV, where the standards of censorship were far more lax than those of the over-the-air networks who were under the thumb of the FCC. Cable was the perfect place for Breaking Bad to find a home.

Series creator Vince Gilligan’s vision of the story of a mild-mannered school teacher who conquered the drug world with aplomb under the alias of Heisenberg may not have been groundbreaking in its presentation of the archetypal anti-hero whom the audience simultaneously cheers for and despises, but Gilligan took it one step further. In an interview with TV Guide, he said that television was designed to keep its characters in a kind of stasis. He is absolutely right.

If you watch any show, from Star Trek to Law & Order, the basic formula from one episode to the next is the same. This makes the shows infinitely rewatchable on cable reruns. But really, the same form of stasis occurred even among the shows considered to be the critical cream of the crop.

Take The Sopranos, for instance. The basic premise is fascinating and deservedly captured America’s attention during the show’s eight-year run. A mafia boss who consults a psychiatrist about his problems? Who wouldn’t love that?

But if you dig beneath the surface, every season has a similar formula to it. Tony encounters a single or group of adversaries. In the first season, it’s his Uncle Junior and his mother. In the second, it’s Richie Aprile. In the third and fourth, it’s Ralph Cifaretto and Jackie Aprile Jr. And so on and so on up until the black screen of doom.

Meanwhile, Tony conducts a series of affairs while his wife feigns outrage, but secretly prefers the arrangement. Tony’s kids are spoiled and unmanageable. Tony takes his problems to his therapist, who gives him advice on how to handle his personal life. Being a sociopath, Tony twists her advice, using it to gain leverage over his enemies.

Another cable critical darling, The Wire, is similar in structure. In every season, the Baltimore police define a target. Throughout the season, they engage in a game of human chess against their opponents. By the finale, the cops nail their quarry, but something happens that renders all of their efforts null and void. They win the battle, but lose the war on drugs.

You can watch the first season of either The Sopranos or The Wire and stop if you wish, having gotten the basic message each series is trying to convey. Sure, you’d miss a lot of great future stories in each show. Adriana’s whacking, or the ultimate fate of Stringer Bell, but you’d still receive the message David Chase and David Simon are trying to send.

Not so with Breaking Bad. At the end of the first season, Walt and Jesse watch helplessly as their first business associate, psychotic, drug-crazed Tuco Salamanca, beats a guy to death in an isolated junkyard, then casually drives away. There is no possible way to know what comes next; no foreshadowing of the plane crash, Gus Fring, Saul Goodman or the machinegun in the trunk outside of an Albuquerque Denny’s. To employ a literary comparison, other programs are like a series of novels, while each season of Breaking Bad is like one section of the same long book.

Gilligan’s dark creation came along at just the right moment in TV history. The Sopranos had recently ended, The Wire was winding down and Mad Men was just hitting its stride, but was coming at the end of the TV revolution, rather than the beginning.

Though timing certainly played a role, you cannot minimize the top-notch talent that went into the creation and execution of this series. Vince Gilligan’s aleatory vision for the show was ignored by every major cable network, but AMC took a gamble because they had far less to lose than HBO or FX. He surrounded himself with a staff of superb writers, editors, camera operators and other set workers. He then assembled a crew of actors second to none in the business. AMC balked at Bryan Cranston being cast in the lead in the wake of his role as goofy husband Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, but Gilligan persisted and ultimately, history proved him correct.

The show is clearly Cranston’s domain, but every actor who supports him is at the top of their game. Aaron Paul is the most noteworthy. Jesse Pinkman begins his journey as a somewhat hapless associate to Walt. By the end, he is a scarred man who will never be able to escape the consequences of his actions. Anna Gunn as Skyler White walks a fine line between the nagging wife and the put-upon victim of Walt’s hyperbolic midlife crisis. Later, she becomes a somewhat unwilling accomplice. She manages all of it with convincing fortitude. Dean Norris as Hank seems like an alfa male jock type when we first meet him, but later when Hank suffers from PTSD, we feel for a man who is struggling with his own demons. Hank’s wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) seems flaky and self-centered at first, but her loyalty to her husband proves steadfast as things get darker and darker for him.

Walt’s antagonists are also well-represented. Chief among them is Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring, a Chilean businessman who uses a string of fried chicken restaurants as a front for his meth business. Fring was so compelling that fans were split on who they wanted to win when Walt and Gus inevitably fell out and entered into a deadly contest of wills. Then, there’s Jonathan Banks as the world-weary Mike, the clean-up guy who splits his loyalties, Mark Margolis as a crippled ex drug lord who can only communicate by ringing a bell, Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, Walt and Jesse’s flashy criminal lawyer who got his own spin-off, and Laura Fraser as the mercurial Lydia, who is too bloodthirsty for her own good. All of these characters come together to form a rich, vibrant tapestry that drives the show toward its ultimate and inevitable climax.

Another facet of Breaking Bad that I find attractive is the show’s overarching philosophy. Some writers are more subtle than others, but each series has at its center a theme or message that it tries to convey to the viewer. The Sopranos is a very complex show, but the basic message is that most people cannot or will not change. The message of The Wire is that institutions ultimately fail despite the best intentions of those who run them.

Breaking Bad strikes a chord with me because of my father. More than once he would say to my brothers and I, “Life’s about choices.” No series better illustrates this truism than Breaking Bad.

As we observe Walt on his journey to becoming Heisenberg, master criminal, we see that Walt is confronted with many choices, both past and present, that propelled him down the path to depravity. The first and most obvious was in the first episode, when he chose to cook crystal meth in the wake of his cancer diagnosis. But many other choices present themselves along Walt’s downward spiral of self-degradation. His two old friends from college offer to pay for his cancer treatments in full, but Walt refuses due to his prideful arrogance. Walt allows Jesse’s girlfriend to choke on her own vomit right in front of him, without taking the necessary steps that would save her. Still later, Walt is forced to choose between his loyalty to Jesse and that of his employer, Gus Fring.

And it’s not just Walt. Nearly every character faces a stark choice at one point or another during the unfolding of the series. Jesse, Skyler, Hank and Marie all make fateful decisions that have an impact, not only upon them, but on the lives of others around them. In my view, this is the very nature of existence. No man is an island unto himself. The decisions we as humans make cannot exist in a vacuum.
It is a lesson that Walt finally learns in the show’s best episode, “Ozymandias,” 47 punishing minutes of television that twist your guts into mush.

Every couple of years or so, I break out my DVD rips of Breaking Bad and rewatch the series. Even after three or four viewings, the show never ceases to astound me with the depth of its writing, acting and production values. I hear the cinematography is pretty good, too.
Other shows have not aged well; 24, for example. Yet, Breaking Bad is a timeless classic that will always hold a place in my heart as the best television series ever to be made.

A pox on Hollywood for not providing it with audio description. My fanboy love for the show is so boundless that I downloaded and saved every single minute-by-minute recap of each episode that was provided by the AMC website. That’s right. I have to listen to each episode, then read the recap to fill in the gaps. It’s cumbersome, but Heisenberg and company are well worth the trouble. Yet, I will not rest until Netflix, the Brits or some lowly narrator chained to a pole with a bike lock in a basement somewhere describes all of the episodes for myself and my blind brothers and sisters.

Bekah, if you’re reading this, I’ve got a bike lock and a bologna sandwich with your name on them. Better beware when I call you to come to the control room.

As for Breaking Bad’s successor, Better Call Saul, you can read about my thoughts on the show elsewhere in the annals of this blog. My views on it haven’t changed much after three seasons. It is a very good show, but not great as was Breaking Bad. Small wonder. You can only catch lightning in a bottle once. Just ask George Lucas and Disney. No matter how many times they try, they will never recreate the crackling magic of the original Star Wars trilogy.

So here’s to you Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brant, RJ Mitte, Giancarlo Espozito, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Laura Fraser, Steven Quezada, Jesse Plemons, David Costabile, Krysten Ritter, Mark Margolis and all of the other actors, as well as the writers and crew who made this show a once-in-a-lifetime experience. David Chase might have broken the TV mold, but you all stomped on the pieces. Happy 10th!!! Let’s all raise a glass of Schraderbrau before we dive into a bucket of Los Pollos Hermanos.