Wednesday, January 23, 2008

God Will Get You for That, Walter

"Breaking Bad" (pilot)

Bryan Cranston, best known as Hal, the hapless Dad on "Malcolm in the Middle," has shed his comic mannerisms (and his pants) to play Walter White, the lead in AMC's new original series "Breaking Bad."

Walter and Hal are not a million miles away from each other, both navigating their ways through fatherhood, both in inadequate jobs. But when Walter discovers he has inoperable lung cancer, the show veers at a right angle away from lighthearted "Malcolm" territory. When Walter decides his skills as a high school chemistry teacher can be most profitably put to use in a methamphetamine lab, the show careens all the way over to hard-edged cable territory. It's easy to see a little of Showtime's "Weeds" in the premise.

"Weeds," however, is a sly social satire. "Breaking Bad" is not. It's much more interested in Walter's downward spiral and with Bryan Cranston in the middle, it is very effective as character study.

His Walter White reminded me of the characters William H. Macy usually plays in the movies: the mustache, the glasses, the impotent middle class rage.

In the "Breaking Bad" pilot, everything comes crashing down on Walter at once. He turns 50. His teaching salary won't stretch far enough so he ends up working a humiliating second job at a car wash. And then there's that whole lung cancer thing.

When his blowhard DEA agent brother-in-law takes him on a ride-along to a meth lab bust, Walter thinks he sees a way out, at least financially. And he only has a couple of years to live anyway, so what the hell?

He teams up with a former student and finds his chemistry know-how makes him the best meth cooker around. But things will not run smoothly. And then he loses his pants in the desert.

"Breaking Bad" has been cooked up by Vince Gilligan, who was one of my favorite creative lights on "The X-Files." Here he writes, directs, creates, and produces. He does a solid job on each, but maybe a little more focus on one aspect or the other might help the show.

As it stands with the pilot episode, "Breaking Bad" isn't quite up to the high standard AMC set last year with its first original series, "Mad Men." Things fall a little too pat when Walter's criminal activities energize him to confront some punks. And it slides clunkingly into sitcom territory when the "thrill of it all" leads to increased sexual potency ("Walter, is that you?"). Yes, there's nothing Viagra can do that crime can't.

But Cranston is marvellous as Walter and "Breaking Bad" breaks good and promisingly with its opener.

3 stars

Footnote: AMC is running this with some spicier elements of the language bleeped. I understand (though do not condone) bleeping some naughty words in theatrically released movies, but this is an original series that presumably AMC okayed as is. Either have the guts to run it intact, or let Vince Gilligan take it somewhere where it can run intact. FX maybe. Or HBO. Either do this or don't.

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