Television: AMC cooks up another winner with riveting 'Breaking Bad'
From good to bad and bad to worse, AMC's new original series, "Breaking Bad," deftly shows that the journey to criminal enterprise is rife with tragedy and horror.
The cable movie network, which made a big splash last year in the TV series arena with its excellent "Mad Men," takes a completely different turn with "Breaking Bad," about a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher dying of lung cancer who decides to cook crystal methamphetamine to support his family after he's gone.
And thanks to a sharp performance by "Malcolm in the Middle's" Bryan Cranston as the teacher who moves from tightly wound suburbanite to desperate man, this is a series that also has a lot to say about hysteria in the face of fear.
The first episode, which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on American Movie Classics, immediately throws viewers into a panic-fueled moment as the half-naked teacher, Walter White, drives an RV through the New Mexico desert with a gas mask on his face and three unconscious men inside.
Flashback to earlier when White hears the bad news: He has terminal lung cancer with only a couple years to live, at best.
White, a decent guy bottled inside a repressed shell of a man, goes on a ride-along with his macho brother-in-law, a federal drug agent, and discovers one of his ex-students, Jesse (played by "Big Love's" Aaron Paul), is selling crystal meth.
The teacher realizes he can use his chemistry skills to "good" use. He hunts down his former student and proposes to cook the perfect meth if Jesse will sell it.
That sets into motion an uncontrollable tragedy that is darkly comic and fiercely intriguing.
When Jesse brings along two threatening dealers who want the drugs for themselves, White breaks free by concocting a chemical explosion and gas that kills one man and injures the other.
From there it only goes downward. Think of it as Showtime's "Weeds," but with a lot more heartbreak - and intelligence.
The setup hardly gives you a feeling for where the series is going, and neither do the next two episodes, which were given to critics for preview. But that unpredictability is partly what makes "Breaking Bad" feel so good.
There's a frenzied roller-coaster at play in White's turn to the dark side and his choices portend calamity.
While TV seems more often to chart the journey of someone whose epiphany leads to redemption and recovery, here's an exhilarating story about a man who falls into the abyss and can't get out.
Cranston, whom people remember as the hilarious dad on "Malcolm," blends seamlessly into his role as the generic Walter White, adding the right doses of nerdiness and anxiety. Paul also is great as the young punk who goes along with White's outrageous plan.
But perhaps the biggest kudos of all should go to American Movie Classics, a cable network showing classic movies that is now a nascent TV-series powerhouse that could give HBO and FX a run for its money.
* VINCE HORIUCHI'S column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8607. For more television insights, visit Horiuchi's blog, "The Village Vidiot," at blogs.sltrib.com/tv/. Send comments about this column to email@example.com.