Monday, February 1, 2010
American Movie Classics, known by the abbreviation AMC, was the poor man's version of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) just a few years ago. The two stations showed roughly the same quality movies, but TCM did so without commercials and on many systems was not part of basic cable. But in 2007, AMC broke out of its role as the weak sister movie channel by airing the well received original program Mad Men, and followed that success with another original hour long program in 2008, Breaking Bad.
The two shows have nearly nothing in common except that they air on the same channel and are remarkably good dramas. Bryan Cranston, best known for playing the dad on the sitcom Malcolm In The Middle, plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who gets an out of the blue diagnosis of lung cancer. Wanting to insure his family's financial future in the little time he has left, he decides to manufacture high quality crystal meth with the help of Jesse (Aaron Paul), a small time drug dealer who had been a not very diligent student of White's a few years back.
While the plot sometimes strains credulity, the acting of Bryan Cranston makes the story feel all too real. The show's obvious metaphor is the squeezing of the middle class, the painfully true reality of how a serious disease can turn a family's situation from workable to unworkable in a matter of moments. Cranston's characterization of White is not the standard buffoonish TV dad, but a hard working and conscientious man who feels the weight of the world slowly crushing him, and motivated by this final indignity, wants to solve his problems with as little help as possible. In nearly every episode in the first season, Walt White is shown almost naked, not as a sexual come-on to the audience but to emphasize the character's horrible vulnerability. There are many other good performances in the show, including Anna Gunn from Deadwood as Walt's wife Skyler and Dean Norris as their swaggering brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent, but the show would fall apart if not for the brilliant work of Cranston. He's worked steadily since the early 1980's, mostly on TV and only occasionally in recurring roles, usually in comedies. There is no role in his previous work that even hints that he could play this character, let alone play it so well. Cranston has won two Emmys already for the first two seasons of Breaking Bad, and he richly deserves them. My opinion of the Emmy Awards is that they play it safe too often and snubbed some of the best shows on the air in the past ten years, including giving no acting awards to The Wire or Deadwood. Those bad calls aside, they got it right when they honored Bryan Cranston for his work in Breaking Bad.
I was hesitant to watch the show when I heard the premise, but a few friends recommended it and let me say that my friends were right. Breaking Bad is one of the most interesting TV shows of the past ten years, another excellent addition to the list of continuing TV series with multi-season story arcs. In my never humble opinion, the best of these TV shows are better than the vast majority of theatrical released movies nowadays, because they have the time to tell a story right. Most movies are like comic books and the best TV shows today are like novels. Several good writers have used the continuing TV series to tell this decade's most compelling and memorable stories on film, and I would definitely put Vince Gilligan's series Breaking Bad on that list.