Breaking Bad Season One
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte
Series Creator: Vince Gilligan
I missed this show during its initial run on AMC, for the simple reason that I had no idea that my cable provider carried AMC until I stumbled upon an episode of Breaking Bad while flipping channels. At that point, the series was already underway, so I didn’t watch, but did put it on my to see list. Following star Bryan Cranston‘s shocking Emmy win for Best Leading Actor in a Dramatic Series, AMC hooked me up with a marathon showing of all seven season one episodes (yes, I’m suggested they did it for my benefit).
Breaking Bad is the story of Walter H White (Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher struggling to make ends meet with his stay-at-home wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), when he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Confronted with his limited mortality and despondent with the series of indignities that make up his life, Walter decides to use his chemistry knowledge to start cooking crystal meth after running into a meth-dealing former student (Aaron Paul).
Reading that description, one might expect Breaking Bad to be a depressing, Alan Ball-type examination of suburban ennui, but then you see the pictures associated with the show featuring shlubby Cranston in his tightie whities (like in the one to the left) and you start to expect a Weeds-type black comedy dealing in the absurd. While I’m a big fan of Ball’s Six Feet Under and was a big fan of early seasons of Weeds, I’m thankful that neither expectation was met.
Instead, creator Vince Gilligan found a happy middle, mixing absurdist black humour with genuine drama and pathos, while being unafraid to navigate the dark side of the life Walter has impulsively chosen (whereas Weeds tends to hint at them, then dismiss them for more wacky hijinks). Walter is forced to deal with some very high stakes very early on in the show (as in immediately, as the show begins with Walter desperately trying to find a way out of a horrible predicament in the series’ gripping opening scene), setting the tone for a show that successfully meshes tense action with its drama and humour.
It’s an ambitious goal for a series that is essentially a character study about an ordinary guy whose life is falling apart, and what those stresses do to him (comparisons to the 1993 Michael Douglas movie Falling Down are both common and apt). A result of its attempts to mix action, drama, and humour into a quiet character study leads to a series that takes a few episodes to completely figure out what it is. After the explosive pilot episode, the series slows down considerably, taking the next two episodes to tell a story that would usually take one.
This measured pace of the early episodes stands in marked contrast to the rushed final episodes, making it difficult to decide what the natural pacing of the show is intended to be (the season was originally slated to be 9 episodes long, then cut to 7 as a result of the writers strike). My guess is that the show would’ve preferred something between the two extremes, and will hopefully proceed that way with its second season (I should point out that while the second and third episodes were measured in their pacing, they weren’t slow. In fact, they were kind of macabre).
Whatever unevenness that existed in the early episodes is mitigated by the performance of Bryan Cranston. It’s a fantastic performance of quiet nuance that builds to sudden explosions, without ever devolving into blatant histrionics. As much as awards for art can be earned, Cranston earned his best actor win (as far as the also-prestigious Andy TV Awards go, Cranston joins the virtual coin flip with Gabriel Byrne and Jon Hamm for the award, with Byrne’s quantity being the tiebreaker). Thanks to Cranston’s assured performance, the series is able to stay grounded while pushing the boundaries of television drama.
The unique concept of the show is the hook, but what makes it great is how it moves beyond its audacious hook to encompass other things. It’s as much about the high cost of getting sick in America as it is about the world of dealing drugs, giving the series a poignancy not suggested by sight of Cranston waving a gun in his underwear. The show’s biggest flaw is that once you move past Walter and his struggles, interest wanes with the rest of the cast. Anna Gunn is solid as Walter’s suffering wife, and Aaron Paul provides comic relief as Walter’s partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman (after a few shaky episodes to begin the season, where he was more annoying than enjoyable), but neither is strong by themselves, and the rest of the cast are basically just people Walter deals with.
It’s not a huge problem, as the series spends most of its time with Walter and is not an ensemble by any stretch, with Cranston involved in roughly 85% of the scenes. But scenes that don’t involve him add little to the show (with the exception being a look at Pinkman’s family life, which helped turn the character from annoying to more sympathetic). Perhaps with more episodes, I’d have begun to care more about Walter and Anna’s teenage son Walter Jr (RJ Mitte), Anna’s bitchy sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), or Marie’s boorish DEA agent husband Dean (Dean Norris, a hey-it’s-that-guy actor playing the same character type you’ve seen him play in many things).
I’m interested in finding out if the series has more in store for these characters, but even if it doesn’t, its focus on Walter is enough to draw me in and recommend the show to others. Breaking Bad has a little bit of everything to recommend, from Cranston’s heartbreaking performance, to the black comedy that pervades throughout the series, to the (literally) explosive climax that has me excited to see what the series will do with a full season at its disposal. The season isn’t slated to be released on DVD until 2009, so you’ll have to wait if you’re looking to check it out that way. Instead, I recommend checking in on AMC, which begins rerunning the season every month and a half or so.