Sunday, March 8, 2009

Motivated sellers: The return of "Breaking Bad"

One of the many, many, crummy effects of last year's writers' strike is that it cut short the first season of AMC's dark, bizarre and brilliant new drama "Breaking Bad." The show centered on Walt (Bryan Cranston, a million miles away from his role as the goofy dad on "Malcolm in the Middle"), a former scientist and current chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal lung cancer. Determined to leave a nest egg for his family (which includes the unborn child his wife is carrying), he teams up with a former student to become a crystal meth dealer. As a result, he finds himself using his considerable brain to make life or death decisions, all while his body continues to betray him. The first season only lasted seven episodes, but that was enough to earn Cranston a 2008 Emmy as best dramatic actor.
Now, the show has returned for a second season, which starts at 10 tonight on AMC. I've seen the first three episodes and, while there are some rough spots (mostly involving Walt's relationship with his wife), it remains one of the best shows on TV. When we rejoin Walt and his meth-dealing cohort Jesse (Aaron Paul), they have just gone into business with a ruthless, insane drug lord (Raymond Cruz, in a huge departure from his role as Sanchez on "The Closer"), and realize their lives are in danger.
The result is a dizzying set of episodes that manage to be harrowing and deeply funny at the same time. One of this show's great assets is that it always finds the dark humor in Walt's situation. A sequence in which Walt and Jesse are holed up with the drug kingpin and his ill uncle, watching cartoons and plotting the drug lord's death, is both scary and absurd. It's sort of like a Coen brothers' film, without all the mannerisms and with a lot more emotion.
And, while the show clearly lives or dies on Cranston's performance, the actors surrounding him are quite good as well, particularly Dean Norris as Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank. Since the protagonist of the story is a drug dealer, "Breaking Bad" could have turned Hank into a brainless cowboy. Instead, the character -- while definitely a cowboy -- is as sympathetic as Walt. He cares about his family and his job, and he's actually quite a competent DEA Agent. One of the main reasons he hasn't unearthed Walt's secret identity is that Hank underestimates his brainy brother-in-law. But that could change.
Presumably, the second season will be a bit longer than the first, allowing this series to flesh out its story and characters. I hope so. This is a daring, intelligent show that deserves to tell its story.
"Breaking Bad" airs at 10 tonight on AMC.

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