Monday, February 11, 2008

BREAKING BAD review for TVG "Strike Survival Guide"

AMC's Breaking Bad Is One Hot Meth

When: Sundays at 10pm/ET (with many encores), premiering Jan. 20.

Why watch?: Judging by the pilot, this promises to be a smart, stylish, grimly funny, ultimately serious look at how life can treat one poorly and how bad choices can make things that much worse... but not always worse, and not in every way. Walter White is a high-school chemistry teacher in Alburquerque, New Mexico, who is just turning 50 as the series begins. His job pays so poorly that he has to moonlight at a car wash; he had done early work that helped other chemists earn a Nobel Prize while he's clearly been slaving away at his school for too many years; his teenaged son has cerebral palsy (though generally seems to be coping with that); his wife is pregnant and 39ish; and he discovers that the persistent chest cold he's been fighting is actually malignant, incurable lung cancer. (You're laughing already, yes?) Having decided that playing life straight isn't going to do him any good nor leave any kind of financial (at least) legacy for his family, he partners up with an old student of his to be a crystal meth "cooker"... fast money and a means to flip the bird at fate and propriety. X-Files writer-producer Vince Gilligan has managed to leaven all this with clever fish-out-of-water humor, as White makes his way in the drug culture while also keeping his family in the dark, and shows that he's nobody's fool except his own. Imagine a less giddy, sharper Weeds that substitutes chemistry for horticulture, add in a dash each of Numbers and The Sopranos, and you might have a sense of what it's like, right down to the theme of mistaking machismo for manhood.

Who's who: Bryan Cranston (see related Q&A) is probably the best choice imaginable to play Walter White; as with his character on Malcolm in the Middle, he's a loving father and husband caught in several dilemmas at once, and like Hal (only more so), White has inner resources that might just allow him to achieve at least some of what he aspires to. Anna Gunn plays his affectionate and usually attentive wife, like Walter coping as best she can with their ongoing predicament (she's picking up small money as an eBay vendor, when not fending off her hypercritical sister or loutish brother, a DEA agent who first unintentionally inspired Walter to consider meth as a career choice). Aaron Paul is Jesse Pinkman, achetypal punk in the old sense, a guy who just doesn't know when to shut up or stop acting tough, but who is an established meth supplier, as "Cap'n Cook." Creator Vince Gilligan had served with Chris Carter on his short-lived series Harsh Realm and X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen before joining the mother-ship series, along with writing films and other television drama.

What's next: Deeper into the meth underworld, while perhaps he'll let at least his wife in on his health and criminal secrets... and perhaps not. This is meant to be an ongoing series, if all goes well.

Say what?!: Cranston apparently has no trouble going around clothed only in tighty-whitey underwear briefs, as required by a good chunk of the pilot's action. (Walter didn't want his street clothes to reek of meth and other chemicals.) Cranston notes that this is the second series in a row that has required him to do so (after Malcolm), and that he's come to the conclusion that "this is what America wants to see."

What do you say? While this show in no way intends to glorify meth nor drug culture (in distinction, perhaps, to Weeds, where the merits of marijuana legalization often are discussed at least in passing, particularly while jubilantly passing a joint or a bong), does showing sympathetic characters doing major and minor crimes trivialize such offenses? Do we need another demonstration of how crime doesn't quite liberate criminals from oppression they feel from within and without? — Todd Mason

Use our Online Video Guide to check out some dope preview clips from Breaking Bad.