TV Review: 'Breaking Bad'
AMC has the makings of another provocative show
Yet with "Mad Men," and what looks to be a very promising follow-up in "Breaking Bad," the cable network is showing it might really be on to something.
"Breaking Bad," which debuts at 10 p.m. ET Sunday, echoes Showtime's "Weeds" in its premise, in which a desperate suburbanite (in this case, "Malcolm in the Middle's" Bryan Cranston) turns to dealing drugs to earn money. The approach and the details are different enough, however, that "Breaking Bad" can stand on his own.
We meet Cranston's Walter White on his 50th birthday, and he's sleepwalking through his life. A high-school chemistry teacher in New Mexico, Walter clearly still has passion for his subject matter but has come close to giving up on imparting it to his students. He also works a second job at a car wash to help provide for both his teenage son (RJ Mitte), who has cerebral palsy, and the baby he and his wife (Anna Gunn of "Deadwood") are expecting. To top it off, he has a cough he can't shake.
There's a reason for that, it turns out: After collapsing at the car wash -- an incident he doesn't bother to tell his family about -- Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, despite never having smoked.
It's enough to send a guy over the edge. And, after seeing his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, on TV touting the agency's latest high-value methamphetamine bust, a light goes off.
After a fortuitous meeting with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a former student-turned-meth cooker, the two decide to enter into business, buying an RV to serve as their mobile lab. The two men couldn't be any more different, and Cranston and Paul have a great time together playing up the clash of personalities ("Did you learn nothing in my chemistry class?" Walter asks. "No," Jesse replies. You flunked me, remember?").
He embarks on his new career, and he's really good at it -- as a trained chemist, he cooks the purest meth around. Naturally, though, he's keeping his activities secret, even going so far as to strip to his undies before entering the lab: "I don't want to go home smelling like a meth lab," he explains to Jesse.
Creator Vince Gilligan, an "X-Files" veteran, takes his character to a point of no return by the end of the premiere (the only episode AMC has sent out for review), putting Walter all in almost before he even realizes what he's doing. Even as Walter falls deeper down the hole he's making for himself, though, Gilligan keeps a barbed sense of humor, whether it's in one of the least erotic sex scenes in recent memory between Cranston and Gunn or simply the sight of Walter standing in the desert in his tighty whities.
The cast is top-to-bottom solid, but "Breaking Bad" is unquestionably Cranston's show, and he gives a fearless, fantastic effort. The undercurrent of hopelessness that he played as the hapless Hal on "Malcolm" is at the forefront here; Walter, you can just tell, is a guy who's been beaten down by life (there's at least one hint, by way of a plaque on his wall, that he was once headed toward greater things), and Cranston embodies that idea with slumped shoulders and a faraway stare that suggests even he isn't quite sure how he got where he is.
It's a look that most of us have had at one point or another, even though most of us probably wouldn't choose the path Walter does. There's something weirdly admirable about what he's trying to do, though; it's never stated outright, but it's obvious that all he wants is for his family to be OK after he's gone.
Just how much time he has left, in fact, is one of the few lingering questions after the pilot. The show cannily avoids nailing down just how long Walter has to live, but given the bleak diagnosis, it can't be more than a couple of years. How the show deals with his deteriorating health, or the side effects of his treatment, remains to be seen. Given the wit on display in the first episode, though, it's not a leap to say "Breaking Bad" could be around for a little while.