Remember that show "Malcolm in the Middle," that was funny for about five minutes? The kids were okay, but what ruined it for me were the parents. I hated the mom Lois, who seemed like a third-rate Roseanne knockoff, and did nothing but yell and henpeck her husband, Hal. I wasn't so much angry at Hal, as disgusted. All he ever seemed to do was sport a cheesy mustache, cower in fear of Lois, and for some reason he was always in his underwear.
I first heard about Breaking Bad from promos while watching Mad Men. All I really knew was that it was about Meth and starred Bryan Cranston, the very same tighty-whitey-wearing Hal who used to make me go, "Dude, not to be a chauvinist dick, but can't you control your woman?"
Hal and Meth - how fast could I say no?
At the time Mad Men was all anything critics could talk about, and deservedly so. (Here's my glowing review of Season 1, if you're interested.) Since that time AMC has produced Rubicon and The Killing and The Walking Dead, all super-high quality programs. But at the time, AMC was still mostly known for editing the tar out of '80s movies, and many people were thinking Mad Men might be more of a fluke than the beginning of a trend, so Breaking Bad sort of flew under the radar.
(Also complicating matters: the Writers' Strike happened around then, which burned up a lot of different shows.)
After a while I started hearing that Breaking Bad was actually pretty good, which seemed skeptical (seeing that it didn't have the "buzz" of Mad Men), and then shockingly, Bryan Cranston won the Emmy for Best Actor, and this was in the age of Don Draper, Dexter Morgan and Greg House!
Then Cranston won the Emmy a second time, then three in a row, and you started hearing from critics that Breaking Bad wasn't just good, but really really good, like maybe "best show on television" good.
I still had my doubts - okay, EXTREME doubts - but it seemed only fair to give the show a shot. I got the Season 1 DVD set for my brother for Christmas, and it finally worked out that we were both in the same place at the same time and had an opportunity to try Breaking Bad.
That was a few weeks ago. Since then we have moved Heaven and Earth to rip through Seasons One, Two and Three before Season Four started. (The first episode of Season Four was last night.)
Breaking Bad is utterly fantastic. If you have read my reviews before and you trust my word, make it the very next thing you watch. Go out and rent Season One (it's only seven episodes, because of that stupid Writers' Strike I mentioned); get both discs, because I guarantee you that once you start it you won't be content to stop after the first three episodes.
You will TEAR through this like a man in the desert would take down a Big Gulp.
THIS NEXT SECTION GIVES THE SET-UP, AND DOESN'T "SPOIL" ANYTHING YOU WON'T FIND ON THE BACK OF THE DVD BOX, BUT IF YOU'RE ANAL ABOUT THAT SORT OF THING JUST SKIP IT.
Here's the set-up: Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a genius who somehow wound up a high school chemistry teacher (with a second humiliating job at a car wash), a 15-year old son with Cerebral Palsy and a 7-month pregnant wife who's more than a little controlling. Walt shoulda-coulda-woulda done something great, but here he is, smack-dab in the middle of a life going nowhere.
Some routine tests reveal a shock: despite a lifetime of clean living Walt has Stage-3 Lung Cancer - which is "get your affairs in order" time. Devastated, Walt is reeling, not sure what to do. The idea of leaving his wife Skyler with a special needs teenager and a new baby sickens him. The next day, while on a ride-along with his much more successful DEA agent brother-in-law Hank, Walter sees Jesse Pinkman, a former student of his. Jesse is the DEA's target that day - a local meth cook, a total screwup - but Jesse gets away with only Walt noticing because he'd been left in the car for safety.
A crazy plan begins to form in Walt's mind, a way to leave his family some money when he dies, which Walt knows is coming very soon. With seemingly nothing left to lose, the milquetoast Walt, the man least likely to ever step a hair out of line, has decided to "break bad."
Even if you read the quick outline, I promise I haven't begun to tell you anything about this series. Everything I wrote is already upside-down before the end of the pilot, and from there it just gets....complicated. That's just the story, which is awesome - but lots of shows have awesome stories.
Breaking Bad is also exquisitely written and acted - the two other hallmarks of TV greatness, and the filming techniques are playful and sometimes surprising. The soundtrack at times is laugh-out-loud funny in the irony, and the camera-work is, not always, but every once in awhile, like nothing you've ever seen.
Breaking Bad is also awash in metaphor - self-consciously so, but they tend to treat the metaphor as some sort of in-joke more than anything so profound that a college freshman could write a term paper. (Although I guarantee that will happen.) Whether it's a pink teddy bear floating in a pool, "la Tortuga," or the use of Heisenberg (which seems to not only be a joke by the producers, but Walt's own private joke as well), everywhere you look there is symbolism, but it's almost as if the producers are saying, "It's like the Matrix, dude. Don't over-think it. Just enjoy."
But the real reason I'm SO enthusiastic is how the show progresses - the tone, if you will, and thematically; that is to say, how the show deals with morality. What Breaking Bad is and does might make the thoughtful viewer at first think of noir - good man caught up in a bad situation - and the dark humor might even invite comparisons to the Coen Brothers. But neither of those things comes close to an analog. What's going in Breaking Bad isn't a raw look at how Fate sometimes intervenes to set our path, and it isn't an examination of the absurdity of modern Life and the Criminal class who's "just trying to get by" like the rest of us.
No, what's happening is harder to define. Breaking Bad is a meditation on what it means to choose how you face the things that happen to you. Walter White reminds me a little bit of Lester Burnham in AMERICAN BEAUTY, in the sense of a man learning he can always surprise himself. In a weird way it also reminds me of the Harry Potter series, in that at first it seems simple and almost naive, but gets darker - relentlessly darker - as it goes on, but subtly, in a way that pulls you in further without realizing it.
Breaking Bad isn't going to be for everybody. While the AMC location means there isn't nearly the level of violence or language of an HBO or Showtime (or heck, even the awesome dramas of FX), there is some violence, a lot of tense situations, and of course the aforementioned meth. Some people probably can't go for that.
But a few weeks ago I would have thought I was one of them. I really didn't expect to like Breaking Bad. I didn't know what to expect, but all my preconceived notions were wrong. What I found was a character study so complex that it rivals the very best literature.
And yes, Bryan Cranston still INSISTS on being in his underwear way too often (my brother and I joked it must be in his contract that he gets one scene per episode), but that is easily forgiven. I don't always like Walter White - I don't approve of what he does hardly ever - but I root for him more than almost any character I've seen. Breaking Bad is the real deal, and don't be surprised if you find yourself semi-obsessed, tweaking for the next episode.
Just don't start your own meth lab. Trust me; there's no way that breaks good.
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