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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: "Pilot"

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After the towering achievement of Mad Men, third-rate movie channel AMC is suddenly a hot spot for serialized dramas. I hope that the basic cable equivalent of a shitload of viewers tuned in to the premiere of Breaking Bad on that basis alone. What they saw was nothing like the elegant social satire of Mad Men, but it certainly has promise, thanks to the mesmerizing presence of Bryan Cranston in the lead role and to the raw, keenly observed screenplay by writer/director Vince Gilligan. And really, if the sight of a doughy, middle-aged man clad only in worsted-weight socks, loafers, tighty-whiteys and a rubber apron doesn't do it for you, I don't know why you're reading the TV Club. That's the kind of image that many of us Clubbers would like tattooed onto publicly visible parts of our anatomy. That's who we are.

The premise: Weeds with an tasty add-on of male menopause and existential dread. Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher with a nagging cough and a humiliating second job polishing his students' tires at the local car wash. When he collapses at work and learns that he has inoperable lung cancer (despite never having smoked a day in his life), he suddenly becomes interested in breaking free from his petty wage-slave life. An offhand comment from his braggart brother-in-law, a DEA agent, sparks an interest in the easy money and chemistry-centric lifestyle of a crystal methamphetamine manufacturer. Funny thing about that — one of his former students, Paul, turns out to be the chief supplier of meth to the greater Albuquerque area, now out of the business after a raid. Walter empties out his savings account and goes in with the self-styled "Captain Cook" on an RV that they outfit as a mobile lab and park out in the desert. This is harsh stuff — too much for AMC, actually; they bleeped the worst profanities and blurred some well-endowed full frontal nudity. Cranston's nihilistic performance, though, remains pure and uncut. His hulking yet impotent screen presence is a solution of one part Matthew Broderick in Election and two parts Michael Douglas in Falling Down. We spend the whole episode waiting for him to blow, and when he does — confronting two high schoolers making fun of his crippled son in a clothing store — it's the perfect counterpart to the crazy risks he's taking with the drug trade.

By the end of the episode (I'd say "spoiler alert," but actually the episode is told in flashback, so this is revealed in the first five minutes), Walter has killed a couple of bad guys with the power of chemistry. And he has money. And he hasn't told his eBay-entrepreneur wife that he has six months to live, much less that he's the scourge of New Mexico's wayward youth. And given that he hasn't engaged in much soul-searching about his new life plan, beyond enacting his scientific philosophy that chemistry is about change, it's a safe bet that there are lots of interesting complications to come. It's rough, it's ugly, and it's sometimes nauseating. I can't wait to see more.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Another recent series that Breaking Bad evokes, tone-wise, is The Riches with its tension between suburban values and deviant identities. And the pilots for both shows spent a lot of time in Winnebagos. One wonders if the RV industry is arranging these questionable product placements (Winnebago: The First Choice of Grifters and Druggies!).
  • Breaking Bad is a horrible, horrible name for a TV show. It's not made any better by being included (and explained) in an actual line of dialogue from the show.
  • Walter hangs his Dockers from the RV's rear-view mirror before gettin' down to cookin' because "I don't want to go home smelling like a meth lab." Are any of you readers familiar with that smell? Have I been leading a sheltered life because I'm not?
  • In the last scene of the show, meth cures Walter's impotence. OK, it's his new grab-life-by-the-balls attitude that's actually restored his virility, obviously, but the show definitely isn't getting some of those sweet kickbacks the DEA was passing out to TV shows and movies with anti-drug messages a couple of years ago. Meth is dangerous to make and involves unsavory characters, sure, but other than that, it seems like a quality product and a prudent investment, on balance. Expect Republican presidential candidates to begin condemning the show any minute (as soon as they're done endorsing Juno's pro-life messages and otherwise exhibiting complete pop culture tone-deafness).