Sunday, March 21, 2010

Kiss the cooks: Reviewing "Breaking Bad's" third season

Since it debuted two seasons ago on AMC, critics have been lauding the drama "Breaking Bad" as one of the most gripping, provocative and well-acted shows on TV. No less than Stephen King has called the best show on television. But there's one element of the show -- which returns for its third season at 10 p.m. today -- these reviews seldom mention.
Sure, the series -- about a New Mexico chemistry teacher who becomes a crystal meth manufacturer -- is powerful and intelligent. And yes, Bryan Cranston, who plays nerd-turned-drug-dealing-badass Walter White, is doing some of the best acting on TV (as evidenced by his back-to-back Emmies).
Yet let's not forget one major thing about "Breaking Bad" -- it's friggin' weird. I mean, it's weird in a good way, not in a fourth season of "Big Love" way. But it's still weird. This is a show that, in the three episodes sent for review, features a pair of identical, nearly mute assassins, as well as a bell-ringing invalid, a glass eye, and a barbecue grill filled with flaming cash.
But "Breaking Bad's" strangeness is one of its many charms. When the new season starts, Walter and his partner in methdom, Jesse (the equally excellent Aaron Paul) are both complete messes. Walt is plagued with grief and guilt, after the departure of wife Skylar (Anna Gunn), who was starting to figure out his double life. He's also pretty torn up about the plane crash that deposited debris and body parts in the family pool. It's a plane crash, don't forget, that Walt was responsible for, as it was caused by the grief-stricken dad of Jesse's junkie girlfriend, whom Walter allowed to choke to death. Walt is obviously wrestling with his role in the crash and there's a devastating moment in the first new episode in which he tries to explain to his students that the tragedy wasn't as bad as it could have been. It's awkward and hard to watch but Cranston, as always, makes it riveting.
Jesse, meanwhile, is still unaware of Walt's role in his girlfriend's death, so he feels responsible for the crash. Of  course, he's also heart-broken and, in a touching scene, repeatedly calls his dead lover's voicemail repeatedly so he can hear her voice. On the bright side, Jesse has cleaned up his act after his time in rehab. Both he and Walt are reluctant to return to the meth game, but it's clear that they won't be able to stay out of it for long.
Just like the last two seasons, this one starts a little slow. As always, I often have a desire to skip over the scenes between Walt and estranged wife Skylar. Gunn is admittedly excellent, but on the Wife of a Complicated Protagonist scale, Skylar is closer to Rita Morgan than Carmela Soprano. I feel for Skylar's plight as she continues to learn unsavory things about her hubby, yet she always feels like a nag and a hypocrite to me. She's just too humorless and angry to be thoroughly sympathetic.
Yet there's so much about the show that I do like, I'm willing tolerate the stuff I'm not crazy about. The third season brings back some of the great supporting characters introduced last season, including sleazy but brilliant attorney Saul (a hilarious Bob Odenkirk) and chicken restauranteur/drug load Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). And, with its breathtaking shots of New Mexico sunsets and desolate deserts, "Breaking Bad" is one of the most beautifully photographed shows on television. Even Cranston's wrinkles have a certain poetry and beauty to them.
All this, and a scene of Cranston belting out America's "Horse With No Name"? Who could ask for anything more.

The third season of "Breaking Bad" starts today at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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