Breaking Bad

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is, traditionally, the equivalent of a turkey coma. Other than the adrenaline spike of the Boxing Day sales – assuming you still do the whole brick-and-mortar thing, of course – there’s just nothing to do, is there?

I’m a firm believer in making the most of this sort of forced downtime, and now that almost every movie and TV series worth watching is available on DVD or Blu-ray (or straight from your favourite streaming or digital download service), why not spend the week catching up to a TV series you missed out the first time around?

Consider the best show currently on television, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. Featuring a career-best performance from Bryan Cranston and sterling supporting work from Aaron Paul, Dean Norris and Giancarlo Esposito, it’s been appointment television for four and a half seasons. The show is set to wrap up with the second half of Season Five next summer; Sony has released the first four seasons in excellent Blu-ray and DVD sets, and if you start into it now, you won’t have long to wait before the first half of Season Five hits disc later this spring. And all those crystal-meth jokes in Entertainment Weekly will suddenly make sense.

If you’re already on board with Breaking Bad, consider its thematic predecessor, HBO’s The Wire. A five-season look at the epidemic of drug abuse in the city of Baltimore, David Simon’s crime drama studies the problem from the inside out, starting with beat cops and street soldiers and expanding all the way into the political, educational and journalistic failings that perpetually compromise the good guys’ attempts to find a practical solution. If Breaking Bad is the more immediate and visceral look at the war on drugs, The Wire is its sober, weary antecedent – a series that assumes a Dickensian aspect both in the scale of its narrative and in its awareness that the system is so deeply broken that nothing will ever really fix it. (And yet, somehow, it manages to be funny and uplifting in virtually every episode.) Available on DVD as five individual seasons, or as a classy complete-series set; don’t hold your breath waiting for a Blu-ray.

Like the procedural aspect, but looking for something a little looser? Consider Justified, which gives Timothy Olyphant the role of his life as Raylan Givens, an old-fashioned U.S. Marshal booted back to his Kentucky home town, where he discovers his past – in the form of old flames (Joelle Carter and Natalie Zea) and a wily rival (Walton Goggins) – can’t wait to catch up to him. The first two seasons are available on BD and DVD right now; Sony’s set to release the third next week, in advance of the fourth season’s launch the week after that. Get on it, why don’t you? It’s the best adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s pulpy-pragmatic sensibility ever to hit the screen – and that’s really saying something, given that other Leonard projects include Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and the short-lived Karen Sisco.

If your tastes lean more towards the cinematic, you could start going through the Criterion Collection’s invaluable library of classic and contemporary cinema in numerical order, assuming you can find a copy of their out-of-print first release, Grand Illusion. Alternately, I can point you to four exceptional boxed sets that pretty much encapsulate the whole of the French New Wave: The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, a five-disc set assembling all four of François Truffaut’s films dealing with his cinematic alter ego, from their 1959 debut The 400 Blows through 1979’s Love On the Run, and throwing in a massive supplement that includes additional short films, documentaries, archival newsreel and TV footage and critical commentary.

Then there’s Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, collecting the revered filmmaker’s key cycle of dramas – which includes the stone classics Claire’s Knee, My Night at Maud’s and Love in the Afternoon – in a comprehensive six-disc collection with five additional shorts, interviews with Rohmer and various cast members and much, much more. 4 By Agnès Varda boxes up the invaluable director’s La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur and Vagabond, and 3 Films By Louis Malle assembles three later works by that director: Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe, Lucien and the shattering Au Revoir Les Enfants. If any of these titles are unfamiliar to you, well, that’s your starting point.

Oh, and back to television for a second: You’ve already seen Freaks and Geeks and Firefly, right? If not, disregard all previous instructions and start there. You can thank me in January.

E-mail Norman Wilner at