Expect a fair amount of hype for Breaking Bad, a new series on AMC that traffics in some grim subjects — namely terminal disease and crystal-meth production. But this infectious, crazy blast of bitter humor, wild storytelling and pungent melancholy about a beleaguered family man should also earn its television keep for managing to steer clear of sentimentality or simple moralism. What this sharp if unsettling show wants to meet head on is middle-class angst, the quiet desperation that starts to unravel in the upstanding when their obligations suddenly seem insurmountable — or what happens when the folly of controlling one's destiny starts to resemble the riskiest of lab experiments.
Our guide into this world is Albuquerque, New Mexico, science teacher/husband/father Walter White, played by a helmet-coifed, moustached, stiff-bodied Bryan Cranston as if he'd never spent seven loosey-goosey years of wacky dad-dom on Malcolm in the Middle. Amazingly, Cranston exhibits no performance residue from that popular comedy, even though the first frantic moments of creator/executive producer Vince Gilligan's pilot appear to hint at a Tarantino/Coen Brothers-style misadventure. Khaki pants fly through the air as we pan down to see an RV peeling away across a lonesome desert road, with what look like bodies and liquid sloshing around in back, a passenger tied up and out cold in front, and a panicky driver wearing only underwear and a gas mask. Walter is the guy at the wheel, and after crashing the RV in a ditch, he grabs a camcorder, shoves a gun in the belt of his Haneses and, in the unforgiving New Mexico sun, proceeds to tape a teary goodbye to his wife and son — but only after addressing the feds to say that the video is not an admission of guilt. As sirens in the distance get increasingly louder, Walter does his best imitation of a movie antihero and points the gun toward whatever fate awaits him. Cue the main titles.
On your standard TV show, this is when we'd be introduced to the cop protagonist assigned to take down the runaway lawbreaker. But after everything from The Sopranos to The Shield to Dexter, cable has conditioned us all to broaden our acceptance of who can lead a series and to even relish the stories of flawed criminal souls, and Breaking Bad— with a slang title that actually means defying convention — is one more such journey. So Walter is indeed our guy, and the rest of the pilot proceeds to lay out the three weeks leading up to his crisis stance in the desert. He's turning 50, he can't get his bored students interested in chemistry, his teenage son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy (but, more naggingly, is a smart-ass), he's alienating his pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and finances are such that this once-promising science whiz — he has a plaque at home congratulating him on research that eventually led to a Nobel prize — has to moonlight at the car wash. It's a rutted, Bush-era portrait of dashed dreams and soft-boil resentment, depressing in its pressurized blandness, even before a coughing Walter collapses on the floor of the car wash and gets a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer.
Keeping the news to himself, Walter realizes his condition will likely send his family into a financial abyss. And then a switch goes on. Inspired by a news report of a meth-lab bust that uncovered scads of cash — led by his obnoxious brother-in-law, a DEA agent named Hank (Dean Norris) — and emboldened by a chance encounter that reveals a former student of his named Jesse is a successful meth dealer, Walter initiates (via blackmail) the idea of teaming up with a meth lab: matching his chemical smarts and access to materials with Jesse's trade knowledge. Naturally it's an odd-couple partnering that earns more than a few laughs at first. A safety-first Walter insists on an emergency eyewash station where he and Jesse cook, and is frustrated at Jesse's ignorance about which flasks are for mixing and which are for boiling: "Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?" he grouses. At the same time, Jesse's suspicions about the motives of this man he once pegged as a middle-aged prig suddenly turn this wigga-talking drug capitalist into a concerned business spouse.
"It's weird, is all," says Jesse, played with a great, whiny brio by Aaron Paul. "It doesn't compute. If you've gone crazy, or depressed — I'm just sayin' — that's something I need to know about. That affects me."
Walter will only cryptically respond, "I'm awake."
You may think this all sounds like Showtime's Weeds. I prefer to think of it as the twisted version of the current flick The Bucket List, where instead of rascally old short-timers filling their final days with self-help-sappy to-do items like "Laugh till you cry" and "See something majestic," you have Walter putting at number one: "Provide for my family by making money off a national scourge." And in execution the two series have hardly anything in common. Weeds and its subdivision-mom-selling-pot scenario ultimately play like empowerment farce, even when weaponry is drawn and lives are threatened. Whereas Breaking Bad— shot with a muted palette and frill-less camerawork, like a low-key indie you'd discover at Sundance — is more a gallows-humor tragedy, a scary mixture of quotidian verisimilitude and sheer gruesomeness befitting a launch into a dark business and a lead character who can see the writing on the wall. Because as darkly funny as the idea of the show is, shit goes wrong instantly for Walter and Jesse, and disgustingly wrong by the end of the second episode. Then there's the irony that in prying open a side of him he never thought to explore, Walter may only be increasing the amount of pressure in his life, not to mention setting himself up for a scrutiny he never thought he'd suffer as a mild-mannered nobody.
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The material is a fresh gamble, and the cast is uniformly solid, but I wonder if it would work quite as well without the supertalented Cranston, who it must be said is giving it his all. The role requires him to look useless, essentially — it's a sense of style Ned Flanders or the BTK Killer would envy — yet he also must suggest a churning wave of conflicting emotions that covers rage, humiliation, acerbity, caring, strength, biting wit and punishing solitude. It's a true tour de force.
In class, we see Walter at his most animated, trying to position chemistry to his students as the study of change, letting on that he finds it fascinating because its continually reformulating elements mirror life's cycles. "It's growth, then decay, then transformation!" he says to a mostly uninterested audience, before dispiritingly shutting off the flame shooting up from the gas valve on his desk.
Sometimes it's an explosion, too, and Breaking Bad — which may feel less like a TV series than a collection of freaky updates on a damaged, stumbling soul — could wind up being one of the more toxically exhilarating shows to corrupt the programming schedule.
BREAKING BAD | AMC | Sundays, 10 p.m. | Premieres Sun., Jan. 20