By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008
A "cult hit" used to be something that no network or producer wanted. After all, TV is a mass medium. The massness has dwindled and splintered, of course, and now a cult hit is considered not only "better than nothing" but also, if the buzz builds, potentially a blockbuster.
Be those things as they may, "cult hit" still seems the most that the creators of "Breaking Bad" can hope for. A mondo-bizarro, dark-as-midnight, bitterly bleak tragicomedy, the series premieres tomorrow night at 10 on AMC and all but busts a gut straining to be edgy and grim.
Obviously a show that finds humor in the production and distribution of a deadly, addictive drug, a show whose hero learns in the first episode that he has terminal lung cancer, a show in which vigorous attempts to destroy a corpse in a bathtub full of acid end with the remains of the body, and the tub, crashing through the ceiling to the floor below -- well, there you have a show that is definitely "not for everybody."
Intriguing stories sometimes evolve from unlikely circumstances. For Walter White, a very mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, the death sentence he gets from a doctor ironically holds the key to a new life -- albeit a crazy and unsavory one. Poor Mitty-timid Walt, who makes so little money from teaching that he works a second job as a cashier at a car wash, hits upon a way to make all of his chemical acumen produce profit, thereby providing for the wife and teenage son he will leave behind.
He decides to go into business as a manufacturer and distributor of methamphetamine, or "crystal meth," an illegal and volatile substance that Walt finds easy to make -- though harder to distribute than he thought. For that part of the enterprise, he solicits the help of truly dopey drug dealer Jesse Pinkman, a dropout who has the necessary lack of morals but also a corresponding absence of intelligence.
Not your cup of absinthe? Frankly, as I read over production notes and began to watch the pilot, "Breaking Bad" didn't seem mine. It's relatively easy to make a TV show shocking or outrageous, but this show goes beyond the edge and right over the cliff -- in an intriguing way. There's a poignant subtext about American dreams gone awry and run amok; in practical terms, as absurdly risky as Walt's solution seems to be, he really doesn't have all that many options. Inadequate insurance, collusion by credit-card companies and other economic hardships are among the factors that dire up his straits.
Walt's teenage son, Walter Jr., has cerebral palsy, a disease that keeps him on crutches and sometimes interferes with his ability to communicate. The part is played by an actor who really was born with cerebral palsy, RJ Mitte, cast for his abilities and not for a disability. Walt's wife, Skyler, a prying and neurotic control freak, is played by Anna Gunn, who's clever enough to make the character tolerable. Walter himself is played by veteran TV actor Bryan Cranston, who spent seven years as a hairy-backed dad on the Fox sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."
Cranston is the consummate chameleon; he looks different in each role -- barely recognizable for his memorable recurring gig as dentist Tim Whatley on "Seinfeld." In "Breaking Bad," Cranston does lots of coughing, a great deal of grimacing, and way too much running around in his underwear. But he also takes a tricky character and makes him believable, sympathetic and worthy of concern.
Some of Walt's biggest mistakes are made for him -- by his blundering partner in crime, Pinkman, played with pitch-perfect cluelessness by Aaron Paul. Pitiful Pinkman narrowly escapes capture in a drug bust near the show's opening, with Walt's big, bald brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, in charge.
As created by writer-producer Vince Gilligan (a surname that may send the wrong message for someone pursuing a serious career in television), "Breaking Bad" sometimes suffers from an overabundance of dialogue and scenes that stretch on too long with repetition and pauses. There are also words and actions that AMC, hypocritically enough, would probably edit out of a theatrical film being shown on the channel. As an auteurist exercise, "Breaking Bad" is several steps up from "Mad Men," the first of AMC's original efforts and the recipient of bafflingly positive reviews.
"Mad Men" is an empty show about emptiness. "Breaking Bad," though some of its outrageousness seems self-conscious, takes tantalizing turns and daring chances. One may find creator Gilligan a kindred spirit just because of his impeccable taste in noir classics: The second and third episodes are titled "The Cat's in the Bag" and "And the Bag's in the River," a memorable quotation from "The Sweet Smell of Success," another cult classic.
Viewers who like to tiptoe over to the dark side now and then -- at least once a week -- are bound to find Walt White's wonderland of woes worth a visit or two, or many more. Much of the second episode, on Jan. 27, consists of two idiots trying to figure out what to do, but the combined talents involved manage to make even this seeming lull painfully and grotesquely funny.
You snicker as you cringe; you wince as you laugh. "Breaking Bad" may give you an oddly gratifying case of the creeps.
Breaking Bad (one hour) premieres tomorrow night at 10 on AMC.