TV Crush

AMC's 'Breaking Bad' Returns With A Vengeance

3/05/2009 2:29 PM

This Sunday at 10p, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad starts off in black and white, for the first time. Ominously, a surreal eyeball and a burned, stuffed teddy bear float lazily in a backyard pool.

My husband and I looked at each other and went “Uh. Oh!”

We’re not exactly sure where Breaking Bad is headed this season, but it’s immediately apparent that the tension and pacing have been ratcheted-up.

We can’t wait to tag along for the wild ride. Breaking Bad is the most compelling, daring original drama airing on television right now.

I’ve never met anyone beyond my TCA peeps who’ve watched Breaking Bad, even though I talk it up with friends and acquaintances. I’m met with blank stares and faint disbelief when I describe the premise.

That said, google “Breaking Bad Season 2” and 25 million results pop up. “American Idol 2009” has just over 11 million. This might have something to do with AMC’s very fun, clever viral marketing effort. (Be sure to click again when the vid has finished loading.)

Go here to to create your own vid.AMC also distributed a beautiful press packet with three episodes to review. (Three episodes! It’s catnip to critics.)Last season, Breaking Bad failed to attract a larger audience. Perhaps viewers were still having problems identifying the AMC brand as an original series destination. Which is really unfortunate, because along with FX, AMC is basic cable crème de la crème, a spot on the channel line-up where viewers are always sure to find inventive content.

And Breaking Bad is the best show you’ve never watched.

There’s a lot of junk on television that will waste your time and fry your frontal lobe. (Can you say, The Bachelor? Kath & Kim. CSI Miami. Knight Rider.)

Breaking Bad is not one of them. It’s smartly written with a superlative cast. Just…arrrrrgh. Watch it, okay?

To make matters worse, season one Breaking Bad was abbreviated to seven episodes due to the writers’ strike, and the drama never generated the same buzz as AMC’s much-talked about Mad Men.

Where Mad Men is smooth and meditative, Breaking Bad is intense and heart clenching. Where Mad Men ambles toward conclusion, Breaking Bad heads there full throttle, with tight scripting rich with foreshadowing.

In some respects, Breaking Bad surpasses Mad Men.

And by that I mean that the premise is gutsy - absolutely out there on the breathtaking edge of risky. Walter White - a quiet, high school chemistry teacher with a late-in-life baby on the way and a disabled teenager - is diagnosed with lung cancer. With only months to live, already living paycheck-to-paycheck and desperate to provide for his family after his death, he secretly takes to cooking and dealing meth.

Part of Breaking Bad’s genius is the architecture of motivation. We understand exactly why Walt does what he does. This is a beautifully crafted character. From the start we, the audience, are the only ones in on the secret of his double life – with the exception of Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt’s inept young partner in crime.

(Unfortunately, this is one character who so far lacks dimensionality. He spends a lot of time making stupid mistakes and yelling. I’m hoping the writers repair this oversight.)

Family man by day, meth cooker by night, Walt White is the very essence of anti-hero. And only the audience fully understands his dilemma and his crushing despair.

Bryan Cranston as Walt is wrenching. Cranston won the Emmy for best actor for his portrayal of the haunted, conflicted Walt, a man who loves his family with a muted ferocity that they cannot possibly comprehend.

For much of last season, methamphetamine to Walt was mostly a chemistry challenge, another set of molecules to be manipulated, a quick means to an end.

But in one blazing, brilliant, violent final scene last season, Walt is faced with the real evil of his profession. Tuco, the psychotic drug dealer, snorts Walt’s blue gourmet meth with devastating consequences.

Tuco returns and, whew! - this guy is fraking intense. AMC did not list the actor’s name in the press materials but Tuco is played by Raymond Cruz. The character is so vicious, such the embodiment of the dark side of the meth business, that I felt like I needed a stiff drink to calm my jangled nerves after some scenes.

Hank is Walt’s DEA brother-in-law. Hank (Dean Norris) is full of bluster and hubris and often provides much of the dark, comic relief. Hank inadvertently sets into motion a misunderstanding that will reverberate throughout season two.

The well-meaning Hank lives in a comfortable, upper-middle class suburban bubble. As we found out last season, there’s trouble in his law-and-order world: Hanks wife, Marie, is a kleptomaniac.

One small, wonderful detail in the season two launch is emblematic of this series. Marie stands in the kitchen and the camera zooms in and lingers on her hands tearing open packets of Splenda and dumping them into her coffee.

It was just such a…suburban housewife moment. But also, I realized later, perhaps a foreshadowing. Very few scenes in Breaking Bad are wasted. The clarity of purpose in this series always hums in the background.

So much to love about this show.

While the entire episode is very smart, one scene stands out above all others - a confrontation between Walt’s very pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Hank. The scene builds in a crescendo of rage masterfully delivered by Gunn without editing, as far as I can tell.

Just…wow. These are the kinds of scenes that earn actors Emmy nominations.

I suppose I’m reduced to begging here but: don’t miss this show. Sunday, March 8, 10p.

Note: Bryan Cranston directed the season two premiere.

P.S. I’ll be reviewing episodes two and three as well, prior to airing. Below, season two promo: