Breaking Bad

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10-11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20
AMC

Chemistry is all about change, explains mild-mannered, burned-out high school teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston in yet another vivid performance). But one of the biggest changes imaginable is about to happen to Walter.

In "Breaking Bad," an odd couple, fish-out-of-water dramedy airing on the heels of AMC's heralded "Mad Men," Walter forms a criminal partnership with a former student. The chemistry teacher will cook up batches of pure crystal meth, and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his former student-turned-meth dealer, will distribute the drug.

Far-fetched? A little, maybe, but consider Walter's motivation. He has a pregnant wife (Anna Gunn), a teenage son (RJ Mitte) with cerebral palsy , a second job at a car wash to help pay the bills and now a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer that gives him, at best, two more years (subject to ratings for the series, of course). Besides, Showtime's "Weeds" already has pioneered the notion that seemingly ordinary people can be drug dealers, and for much the same reason.

In creating "Bad," writer/director/exec producer Vince Gilligan probes the situational ethics of a man who is running out of time. Walter is a straight-arrow and a stranger to impetuous behavior for all of his 50 years. But he also is passionate about his family and determined that his death not plunge his wife, son and new baby into a financial abyss.

Gilligan, bemused by Walter's dilemma, treats it with equal parts of desperation and dark humor. A stickler for following the rules, Walter sets up a lab so clean and neat and safe that it could pass an FDA inspection, if there was such a thing for meth production. Jesse, on the other hand, can barely think beyond the moment and is utterly bewildered by his finicky partner in crime.

Inevitably and reluctantly, "Bad" must take a position on the whole crystal meth business, if only through inference. Based on the pilot, the position is one of tolerance. For all his middle-class morality, Walter never voices concern about the drug's deadly impact or reservations about contributing to it. What's more, Walter's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a macho and bigoted DEA agent, is motivated mainly by the fun of carrying out raids and not by any great concern about the drug's dangers.

While no one expects or wants "Bad" to be an after-school special, its laissez-faire attitude toward crystal meth is a little problematic. (A brief synopsis of the third episode says Hank, the DEA agent, warns Walter's son about the dangers of drugs. However, the episode was not available for review.)

That said, give Gilligan credit for a pilot, written mostly as one long flashback, that is suspenseful and surprising. Cranston is always fun to watch and "Bad" is no exception. What's more, a strong supporting cast suggests there is a lot of room for this series to grow.

BREAKING BAD
AMC
High Bridge Prods. and Gran Via Prods. in association with Sony Pictures Television
Credits:
Executive producers: Vince Gilligan, Mark Johnson
Producer: Karen Moore
Co-producer: Melissa Bernstein
Director-teleplay-creator: Vince Gilligan
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Robb Wilson King
Editor: Lynne Willingham
Music: Dave Porter
Set designer: Marcia Calosio
Casting: Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas
Cast:
Walt White: Bryan Cranston
Skyler White: Anna Gunn
Jesse Pinkman: Aaron Paul
Hank Scharder: Dean Norris
Marie Schrader: Betsy Brandt
Walter White Jr.: RJ Mitte
Krazy-8: Max Arciniega
Emilio: John Koyama
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