Ten years ago it might seem absurd to believe that an audience would actually reserve time out of their daily grind for a show revolving around the cooking and dealing of Crystal Meth. Then again the same could be said about any number of mind boggling reality shows being churned out every year (how bout’ the short-lived 2008 dating series Farmer Wants a Wife, which is fairly self-explanatory).
In the rapidly advancing television arena that gave viewers anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, or the testosterone fueled series Rescue Me, the mind numbingly complicated Lost, etc. etc. a show focusing on a flawed but empathetic family man cooking up meth is somehow not only tolerable but viewed as riveting dark humor.
This is not to say there is something morally outrageous with a show revolving around a detrimental drug like meth, since one can find drama in just about any branch of life. What is most surprising about Breaking Bad is just how desensitized the modern viewer has become to the once risqué. Ten years ago meth was nothing more than scary new designer drug from the Pacific Northwest that was cheap to produce and reeked havoc on the human body and psyche. Today, besides being a creeping national epidemic, it’s the subject of an Emmy winning series on the American Movie Classics network.
The strength of Breaking Bad lies in its protagonist, Walter White (Bryan Cranson), an unassuming, average 50-year-old high school Chemistry teacher living in suburban Albuquerque. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn of Deadwood acclaim) is pregnant with an unplanned child, his son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy and if life couldn’t get any more complicated, White is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Cranson is the most unassuming choice for White. Prior to this series he was best known for reoccurring roles on Seinfeld as the slimy dentist Tim Whatley, and as the dopey father on the dysfunctional family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. In Breaking Bad he remarkably morphs into a tragic character coming to grips with his upcoming demise, his run of the mill lifestyle, his past regrets and his financial obligations to his family.
His character belongs in the same family as American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, Jeff Bridges’ character in Fearless and the protagonist of Kurosawa’s masterful Ikiru. Like his cinematic brethren, White’s character has recently awakened from the slumber of his routine life and decides to risk it all, live it up, or, as the title puts it, ‘break bad’.
After discovering the cancer plaguing his smoke-free lungs and learning about the big bucks in the meth game from his DEA brother-in-law, White seeks out help from a former student he once flunked, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). When the series pilot commences and concludes (the show’s sharp editing is worth noting) the ill-matched duo has been cooking up inside a R.V. in the middle of the desert, White is stripped-down to his everyman white underwear and he is toting a handgun as the sirens approach from the distance.
The meth lab scheme that White proposes to Pinkman is both a sign of desperation (he needs to save up a lump sum of cash for his family’s future) as well as White’s way of letting loose during his potentially final months on earth. In one of the season’s best moments White erupts in a family intervention aimed at coaxing him into chemo treatment and spells out exactly how he wants to live his life. When the show wants to be sentimental, White’s true to life cancer realities get the job done.
White’s chemistry background remains mysterious throughout the first season. We learn that he was once a brilliant and prosperous mind at CIT but somewhere along the way strayed off this fruitful path and now lectures to detached high school students for just shy of $45K a year.
He knows his way around the substances needed to concoct the highly potent, highly addictive pipe fodder and seems to have an unhealthy fascination with the dangers and anarchy of chemistry. As the series unfolds its clear that there is a little hell-raiser lurking behind the eyes of this average Joe.
To this end the show is also very much a tutorial of some of the more curious outlets of basic chemistry in the same way House M.D. enlightens viewers with viruses and diseases. It’s not surprising that Breaking Bad’s most memorable moments are found in the various make-shift labs that White and Pinkman set up or when the two get creative with their scheming (a darkly comedic gross-out moment involving a corpse, hydrofluoric acid and an unstable porcelain tub is the kind of scene that will either turn viewers away or permanently suck them into the mayhem).
Despite the series’ somber storyline, Cranston brings a level of welcomed dark humor to the role. His witty banter and sarcastic outlook on his predicament pairs well with White’s underused intellect and bottled up rage towards the life he’s chosen. His interactions with the naïve Pinkman, a thugged out, wannabe player who is also in desperate need of more character development, showcase some of the show’s finest writing. Then there’s the larger than life Latino drug dealer named Tuco Salamanca (played with gleeful exuberance by veteran character actor Raymond Cruz) who gives viewers a hell of a cliffhanger during the season finale.
Breaking Bad’s first season, a meager seven episodes, is not without its flaws. A great deal of time is spent detailing the production and business side of White’s meth trade, however, little attention is reserved for the drug’s societal effects. White manages to cook up an extremely pure batch of “glass,” which according to a character can keep you high for days, however, the series fails to show the users who are filling White’s wallet. Programs like HBOs The Wire, which to be fair belongs in its own category of television series, succeed by channeling all sides of the drug war. In its first season Breaking Bad takes a timely social issue like meth abuse, brings it to suburbia but fails to show the bigger picture. For anyone privy to crystal meth’s effect on this country, it is widely known that it is hardly a petty drug.
Besides being terribly addictive (addiction is ripe for dramatic television), meth remains one of the most physically harmful drugs available, one that few are able to successfully recover from. That this side of Breaking Bad is still a mystery (after all the show’s is currently in its second season) is an aspect of the series that is fairly bothersome and irresponsible.
White is clearly throwing caution to the wind since learning of his cancer and his actions are seldom those of a completely sane man, however, through Cranston’s refined performance and the little background info available, it’s safe to say White has a good head on his shoulders. To believe that he wouldn’t concern himself with the repercussions of his highly potent meth formula–both on his family and the drug using community–is the one aspect of Breaking Bad that is a bit hard to swallow and hopefully will be developed/remedied further on down the road.
Television as a medium has come a long way since the early days of three major networks, a handful of nightly newscasts, and the occasional prudent sitcom. There was a time when the riskiest moments on TV were live prime-time disasters (Elvis Costello going against the corporate grain on Saturday Night Live), controversial episodes (Seinfeld’s notorious “Puerto Rican Day Parade” turn for example), or the Godfathers of Reality TV, Cops and America’s Most Wanted. To think that in this day and age a gripping dramatic series about a middle age man cooking up Crystal Meth would be as engrossing as your average hour-long drama is yet another indication to the endless directions writers can take television, truly rivaling that of its more revered cinematic and literary counterparts.
Breaking Bad is as gritty and risqué–censored language, blood soaked scenes of violence and even a bit of backside male nudity–as other envelope pushing cable network series like The Shield or AMC’s other golden child, Mad Men. The acting is polished and, in the case of Cranston, very surprising. At a paltry seven episodes, the series’ first season has a few glitches to work out, hopefully in the current second season but overall it is a unique shining light of a program amid an overly saturated market of bad sitcoms and mind numbing reality offerings.