Breaking not bad

AMC’s new original drama stumbles but may yet recover

Josh Bell

With a mountain of critical acclaim and two Golden Globe wins (for best drama series and best actor in a drama) for its first original series, Mad Men, it’s no wonder that AMC is already trotting out its second new scripted offering, Vince Gilligan’s dark drama Breaking Bad (Sundays, 10 p.m.). A long way from the subdued, smoldering period drama of Mad Men, Bad looks even more like something you might find on FX or Showtime, an edgy, high-concept show that revels in its exploration of the seedier side of human nature.

Countering his image as Malcolm in the Middle’s scatterbrained and loveable dad, Bryan Cranston plays mopey middle-aged chemistry teacher Walter White, slouching past his 50th birthday with a younger, pregnant wife, a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a heap of debt that even his demeaning second job at a car wash has no hope of helping him pay off. His boxy glasses, limp mustache and faded polo shirts say as much about Walter’s joyless existence as do the students who pay no attention to him when he talks about chemistry, the one thing that seems to bring him any pleasure. Just when it looks like Walter’s life couldn’t get any worse, he’s diagnosed with terminal, inoperable lung cancer and given only a short time to live.

With nowhere to go but up, Walter decides to solve his financial woes and live the remaining months (or a few years at most) of his life to the fullest by replacing his car-wash job with a more lucrative supplementary income running a meth lab. It’s a bleak premise that requires its audience to accept what appears to be a basically decent man making a series of stupid and casually malicious choices, including not telling his family about his condition and willingly aiding in the production of an illegal drug that arguably destroys more lives than any other.

While suburban mom Nancy Botwin on Showtime’s Weeds becomes a pot dealer out of a similar financial need (albeit minus the terminal illness), her choice is portrayed more as an unconventional career path than the manifestation of a death wish. Pot is often harmless and can easily be played for laughs, but the same is much more difficult to do with meth; even the sight of the pudgy Walter cooking up the drug in his undies to avoid soiling his clothes inspires more pathos than humor. Gilligan, who wrote some of the best and most distinctive episodes of The X-Files, here buries his off-kilter sense of humor under such a downbeat concept that even the rare moments meant as comic relief (the macho banter between Walter’s DEA-agent brother-in-law and his partner) just seem morbid.

Like so many of these intricately high-concept cable dramas (The Riches, Big Love, Weeds), Breaking Bad feels like it has a built-in shelf life, only a season or two before the effort to sustain its various narrative high-wire acts becomes too cumbersome. Also like those shows, its envelope-pushing, both in subject matter and explicit language and sexuality, often comes off as trying too hard. (There’s also the odd fact that the pilot features several bleeped-out F-bombs and some blurred-out toplessness, still too risqué for basic cable but presumably to be restored on the inevitable DVD release.) At this point it’s a little too early to tell whether Breaking Bad will itself break bad, or right itself from the pilot’s awkwardness and become something worthy of the talent behind it.

Breaking Bad ** 1/2

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