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'Breaking Bad'

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It's difficult to fathom a more dangerous and enthralling piece of television than "Breaking Bad," the AMC drama that quietly is redefining the creative and content limits of primetime.

It broke from the starting gate last year like a gunshot to the temple, grabbing viewers by the throat and letting go only when the WGA strike interceded to slice two episodes from its first-season order of nine. But creator-producer-writer Vince Gilligan hardly seems to have been thrown off stride to behold the first three hours of Season 2, which take us to a dark, chilling place rarely visited on the small screen.

Simply put, what Gilligan and company are crafting in many ways transcends the medium, producing material with an indie art house feel and profoundly unsettling "No Country for Old Men" vibe. Moreover, star Bryan Cranston, the surprise lead actor winner at last year's Emmys, has raised his game even higher, leaving no trace of the goofball "Malcolm in the Middle" dad. This is television as God intended.

The "Breaking Bad" story line casts Cranston as a pathetic high school chemistry teacher named Walt White who — upon learning he's dying of lung cancer — chucks it all to become a crystal meth chef in a mobile lab with a perpetually irritated ne'er-do-well former student, Jesse (the terrific Aaron Paul), to make enough money to provide for his family after he's gone. That family includes a pregnant all-American blonde wife (Anna Gunn) and an adolescent son with cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte). Complicating matters is the fact that Walt's brother-in-law (a wonderfully pugnacious Dean Norris) happens to be a DEA agent. Whoops!

Cranston and Paul enjoy a magnificent chemistry (no pun intended) that's at once grippingly harrowing and blackly comic, bumbling and stumbling their way through a world neither has any business being anywhere near.

If you were mesmerized by the claustrophobic look and style of a drama masterfully shot in the New Mexico desert by director of photography Michael Slovis, you ain't seen nothin' yet. The violence is more brutal. The mood is starker. And the suspense is pretty much off the scale, particularly in the breathtaking second episode, "Grilled," from writer George Mastras and directed by "Hill Street Blues" alum Charles Haid. The first two segments are bolstered greatly by a rip-roaring guest turn from Raymond Cruz of "The Closer" as a murderous psychopath of a dealer.

Cranston has tossed himself so deeply into this role it's possible to see into the very soul of his tortured alter ego. "Breaking Bad" is indeed so flat-out superb that it appears to be operating at a different level than just about everybody else save AMC's own "Mad Men" and maybe a couple of shows on FX. (partialdiff)