Tuesday, March 31, 2009

BREAKING BAD



I had never heard of Breaking Bad until the night of the Emmys broadcast, when Bryan Cranston's name was announced as winner of the coveted award for Best Actor in a TV Drama. When I realized that that name belonged to the man who had played the wacky dad in the equally wacky family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, I was doubly surprised. Most of the audience members seemed to share a similar reaction. What the hell was this show, where did it come from, and why the hell was the dad from Malcolm in the Middle suddenly being hailed for his dramatic chops?

My wife and I watch a lot of great TV and had even been fans of AMC's critically acclaimed original series Mad Men when Cranston and his new series made that unexpected splash on Emmy night. We had had no idea that the same network responsible for one of last year's biggest TV crazes was also harboring one of its best-kept secrets. Season 1 of Breaking Bad was released recently on DVD, and within minutes of the pilot episode I became hooked on this phenomenal new show.

Despite the Emmy nod, most people still have not heard of this show (even though Stephen King regularly praises it in his column for Entertainment Weekly). For the uninitiated, here's a brief, spoiler-free synopsis...

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a brilliant man who won a Nobel Prize early in his scientific career, but now, at the age of 50, finds himself teaching high school chemistry to vaguely disinterested kids. His wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is still in her 30s and currently pregnant with their unplanned second child. Their first child, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), is a teenager with cerebral palsy. Walter Sr. spends his afternoons working an extra job at a local carwash, trying desperately to provide for his growing family. If these initial circumstances weren't painful enough, he learns in the pilot episode that he has inoperable lung cancer.

If this already sounds like too much of a downer, it isn't. The series was created by Vince Gilligan, the former X-Files scribe responsible for some of that series' most eccentric and memorable episodes. Gilligan is well-versed in infusing bizarre subject matter with appropriate levels of humor. In addition to creating and producing Breaking Bad, Gilligan also wrote the bulk of its first season, which helped keep the narrative focused and the tone and style consistent.

After learning of his cancer and realizing the harsh financial predicament this could leave his family in, Walt begins to brainstorm ways to make lots of money in a hurry. His brother-in-law, who happens to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency, unknowningly provides Walt a new career path when he takes him on a ridealong to show him a meth lab seizure. Once Walt realizes that his profound knowledge of chemistry could be applied to the drug trade for a substantial profit, all that's missing is a way into that world. Cue the arrival of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a former student of Walt's who now spends his free time cooking mediocre meth and snorting what he can't sell. Walt decides with eerie immediacy that he must partner up with ex-pupil and generate some major cash while he's still well enough to do so.

Fans of Showtime's comedy series Weeds may claim that this show is a mere variation on that show's premise of a recently-widowed housewife deciding to deal pot in order to provide for her family. While Breaking Bad also examines the effects of an average citizen suddenly plunging into the drug subculture, it is done in a much more realistic fashion. Granted, this show still requires a suspension of disbelief, but it's not so eager for laughs that it bypasses logic altogether. It's also extremely addictive, whereas I could easily go several weeks in between Weeds episodes.

Season 1 was originally going to be 9 episodes, but was ultimately cut to 7 due to the writer's strike. This makes it a bit difficult to justify buying Season 1 on DVD, but with places like Wal-Mart occasionally selling it for $19.99 or less, it's well worth it. Luckily, Season 2, which began airing several weeks ago, will contain 13 episodes. After having already seen the first 4 episodes of the second season, I can confidently state that the show has not lost its edge. In fact, I'm glad to see that the series has been willing to delve deeper into the Jesse Pinkman character. Most drug dealers or junkies on TV shows are cliched and one-dimensional, but Jesse's lifestyle and home life have already been explored in painful detail. Despite the mistakes made by Walt and Jesse, we can't help but hope that they survive each episode and somehow turn their battered lives around. This is not always easy or pleasant viewing, but it is definitely essential viewing. Many great shows have ended recently (The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, etc.), but hopefully more programs as intriguing, uncompromising, and well-crafted as this one will start surfacing. Give this one a chance and keep your fingers crossed that it doesn't get cancelled before its time, like so many other great shows before it.

Breaking Bad airs on AMC, Sundays at 10pm Eastern / 9pm Central.

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