Tuned In: 'Breaking Bad'
Last summer AMC finally became known as something other than "the cable network that ruined classic movies by adding commercials" with the critically acclaimed period drama "Mad Men." As with other cable networks, AMC is seeking to define itself through original programming. "Mad Men" was the first salvo, and "Breaking Bad" (10 tonight) is the second.
While definitely not the tour de force "Mad Men" was, "Breaking Bad" puts forth a distinctive premise. High school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, best known as the dad on "Malcolm in the Middle") is diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer and decides to provide for his family financially by squirreling away as much money as possible. To accomplish this, he teams with small-time crystal meth dealer Jesse (Aaron Paul), who's also his former student.
Starring: Bryan Cranston.
Created by "X-Files" veteran Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed tonight's premiere, "Bad" has its moments of dark humor, but it's largely a morose drama that covers familiar ground: characters with anti-hero tendencies leading double lives.
Viewers have been down this path before with "The Sopranos" and "The Shield," although "Breaking Bad" is more directly comparable to FX's "The Riches" (poor band of gypsies pose as a wealthy family) or HBO's "Big Love" (polygamists attempt to keep their lifestyle a secret to protect the wholesome image of dad's hardware store chain).
In "Breaking Bad," Walter doesn't immediately share the cancer diagnosis with his wife, which would be a sensible first step. Instead he keeps it a secret through the first three episodes made available for review.
Maybe Walter's decision to withhold the bad news is rooted in the characters and their relationships, but "Breaking Bad" only hints at why Walter, who is 50, may be uncomfortable sharing the diagnosis with his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who is at least 10 years younger and pregnant with their second child. Perhaps future episodes will fill in the blanks, but a TV series must dole out morsels of character motivation often enough to keep viewers tuning in, and I'm not convinced "Breaking Bad" does.
In another instance where the series hints but fails to provide clarity, "Bad" introduces Walter's teenage son (RJ Mitte ), who suffers from a physical ailment, but his specific medical issues are unclear (the press notes say he has cerebral palsy). Then there's Walter's second job at a car wash, which remains similarly unexplained. Does he need extra cash to cover his son's medical bills? In the first three episodes, "Breaking Bad" offers no concrete answers, rendering the show frustratingly oblique.
Regardless, Cranston is a revelation. His performance as a mild-mannered, wildly intelligent, possibly henpecked family man is the primary reason to recommend "Breaking Bad." Cranston's Walter is a thoroughly decent guy who is prone to doing the right thing.
In next week's episode Walter finds himself in the unfamiliar role of captor to a murderous criminal. Rather than immediately killing the guy, the high school teacher makes a sandwich for the constrained captive . Walter slides a plate across the floor to the prisoner and follows the food with a bucket (to be used as a toilet), toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Walter also takes pride in his work, even when it's illegal.
"You and I will not make garbage," Walter tells Jesse of their drug-producing joint venture. "We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as promised."
In such rare instances, "Breaking Bad" achieves a perfect moment of nerdy believability, but too often the series fails to provide details that would help explain its characters' illogical choices.
First Published January 20, 2008 12:00 am