The best (though in the interest of fairness, the only) new dramatic series I came across last year has arrived on DVD with the release of “Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season.”
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a brilliant mind in the field of chemistry, whose accomplishments include contributing research to a Nobel Prize winning project. However, he has since fallen into a life of complacency, teaching chemistry at the high school level and with each passing year is growing more and more apathetic towards his career. Then Walter finds out devastating news. He has terminal lung cancer and is given two years to live. Not wanting to leave his pregnant wife and special needs son burdened with financial implosion, Walt finds an insane solution; he decides to start cooking crystal meth with a burnout former student of his named Jesse (Aaron Paul).
This is the launching point for “Breaking Bad,” a darkly funny, sometimes disturbing, but always captivating show that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen on TV. Above all, it’s more than a show about meth. It’s about how complacency can corrode the human soul, and the links that an unfulfilled person could go to when he’s faced with his own mortality. The writing and direction of the show are top notch. The series hooks you in from the get go, with a scene of Walter, stranded in the desert in tighty-whitey underwear after an RV crash, leaving a goodbye message to his family on a video camera, fearful he is about to be captured by police. The season hits its high mark in episode three with a breathtaking series of events involving Walter and a drug dealer he has u-bolted by the neck in the basement of a house. I won’t give anything away for those who haven’t seen the show; I’ll just say if there was a better moment of fictional TV than the conclusion of this scene last year, I didn’t see it.
Equally strong is the acting. All the lead performances are of high quality, notably Aaron Paul as Jesse, the burnout Walt has attached himself to; and Anna Gunn as Skyler, Walt’s wife who becomes increasingly suspicious, but ultimately excited about her husband’s transformation.
The tops here though is Cranston (who won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series) as Walter. Cranston is best known for his role as the out there goofball dad Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle,” and while he still brings some of the madcap energy he showed on that program (see the before mentioned underwear in the desert bit) he strikes emotional chords most people have never seen from him before. Most startling is the full transformation his character takes in seven short episodes. At the beginning of the series, Walt’s life is so mundane he is barley there, and by the end, he is standing toe-to-toe with vicious criminals while forming his own drug empire. Cranston plays the transformation perfectly, never taking it to the point where it becomes over-the top. His Emmy win was well deserved.
If I can lobby one complaint for the season is that the end seems too abrupt. It is my understanding it was originally supposed to contain nine episodes, but was cut to seven because of the Writers Guild strike of 2007. That isn’t to say the last episode is bad, it just didn’t feel conclusive, and the decreased number of episodes could be the culprit. There are also a few storylines, most notably one involving Walt and a former lover, that feel underdeveloped. Hopefully Season Two will help make some of the foggier moments more clear while continuing the story.
The Extra features are interesting but fairly standard. There are deleted scenes, interviews, behind-the-scenes features, and a string of web features most fans have likely seen already.
It would be unfair of me to claim this show to be a dead on depiction of the world of methamphetamines seeing as how that is not a world I am in any way directly familiar with. But as someone who resides in a meth-infested stink-hole of a town, it does seem to paint a vivid picture of some of the horror stories you hear on an almost daily basis. But beyond its drug themes, “Breaking Bad” is a stirring portrayal of an underachiever who is taking desperate measure to rectify a ho-hum existence before it is too late. I will stress this show isn’t for everyone. It is a bit grisly at times. And by grisly, I mean at one point the dissolved insides of a drug dealer collapse through the upper level of a house to the level below. But if you have the stomach for it and you appreciate well acted, well written and original television, I cannot recommend the show enough.
- Superbly written, directed and acted
- Remarkably entertaining
- Just the aforementioned abruptness of the seasons end
Overall: 8.5/10 (Great)
Extra Features: 7/10
“Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season,” DVD is in stores now. Season Two Premiers this Sunday on AMC at 10 p.m.