Breaking Bad joins Mad Men as part of AMC’s shockingly successful bid to out-HBO HBO in terms of quality, daring, and innovation. The show’s lead actor, Bryan Cranston, even defeated AMC golden boy Jon Hamm for Best Actor in a Drama series at the 2008 Emmys. And rightfully so: While Hamm anchors a sprawling ensemble cast, Breaking Bad’s success depends largely on Cranston’s ability to express everything and nothing simultaneously as a high-school chemistry teacher who begins cooking up crystal meth with a former student as a way of providing for his family following a terminal cancer diagnosis. In the early episodes of the show’s brilliant first season, Cranston hasn’t even told his wife and son about his illness, so it falls on the actor to express non-verbally the torment of leading a double life by keeping the people closest to him in the dark. He pulls off the balancing act beautifully.
Far from his signature role as the cheerfully oblivious dad in Malcolm In The Middle, Cranston plays a fundamentally good man driven by fate to do wrong for the right reasons. When Cranston learns he’s dying, he goes into business with Aaron Paul, a meth-smoking drug dealer whose gangsta affectations somehow don’t seem any less ridiculous in light of his actual outlaw lifestyle. Anna Gunn co-stars as Cranston’s wife and the mother of his cerebral-palsy-stricken son. She’s a paragon of conventional morality who slowly begins to piece together that something is seriously wrong with her husband.
Cranston’s secret life as a meth entrepreneur and his public life as a respectable family man overlap in strange, poignant ways, like when he enjoys an unexpected moment of connection after figuring out that he once bought baby furniture from the father of the drug-dealing rival he has chained up in a basement. Cranston’s heartbreakingly real performance grounds the show’s tricky combination of intense family drama and Tarantino-esque black comedy in the concrete reality of a man staring down death while struggling to hold on to what’s left of his slippery moral compass. This is especially important once the show takes a cartoonish turn following Cranston’s evolution from unlikely criminal to swaggering badass/reluctant kingpin. Breaking Bad is fundamentally concerned with the tricky interplay of money and ethics, though given its pulpy subject matter, Cranston’s moral quandaries are as liable to play out in seedy basements and the compounds of drug dealers as PTA meetings and classrooms.
Key features: The usual promo-tastic behind-the-scene features, a smattering of deleted scenes, and boisterous group commentaries on two episodes.