Breaking Bad: TV Just Got Really Good

During the first episode of “Breaking Bad,” Walter White tells his class of less-than-eager students that chemistry is not the study of chemicals, but rather the study of change. If chemistry is the study of change, then Walter is a study of how quickly a person can change. And his descent is more alarming than any chemical reaction you’ll ever experiment with.

“Breaking Bad” has been labeled the best drama on television by most people who have ever watched it. It lives up to that honor. Its distinctive style leaves an unforgettable mark.

Walter White, played with a ferociously calm zeal by Bryan Cranston, is a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque. As the show begins, life isn’t too great for Walt. He works a job well below his level of brilliance, and can barely support his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his crippled son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte).

Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Realizing he may not be around much longer, he decides to find a way to leave money for his family. In an act of desperation, he teams up with Jesse (Aaron Paul), a junkie former student of his a heart of gold, in order to cook meth. Using his extensive knowledge of chemistry, Walt cooks up the best meth anyone north or south of the border has ever seen. He becomes rich, but he also enters a world far more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

As I’ve said before, AMC has the potential to be the best network on television, if not for all of the f***ing bleeps. “Breaking Bad” achieves a cinematic level of storytelling. As the show unfolds, it feels more and more like everything was planned right from the start.

“Breaking Bad” seamlessly blurs the line between good and evil. The show’s title comes from a southern colloquialism describing a straight-edged person who has taken a turn for the worse. “Breaking Bad” might be a show about dangerous criminals and drug deals but it will always boil down to the devastating downward spiral of Walter and how his decisions lead to the deterioration of his relationship with his family, the only thing in the world he cares about.

As Walter, Cranston gives the best dramatic performance on television. He can convey a feeling simply by giving you a long, frightening glare. He makes Walter’s moral descent totally believable. In one episode, Walter’s family tries to give him an intervention. It is a prime example of both Cranston’s work and the show’s powerhouse writing. In addition, Paul surprises as Walt’s partner-in-crime. Sometimes, he seems dumb and emotionally empty. But then he does something like save a child from his meth addicted parents. In a show filled with morally hazy actions, this was one of the few things someone on “Breaking Bad” does that can actually be described as heroic.

“Breaking Bad” is a modern western in the spirit of “No Country for Old Men,” in which the characters inhabit the cowboy morale in a present day setting. It also seamlessly mixes in elements of a thriller, with many episodes echoing the atmospheric horror of “The Shining.” In short, creator Vince Gilligan is an auteur of television.

A single episode of “Breaking Bad” is kind of like a movie in itself. However, the format of television allows the story arcs and the characters to run even deeper than most movies ever do. “Breaking Bad,” along with shows like “Mad Men” and “Louie” has figured out what the filmmakers of the late 60s figured out: how to make the medium raw, original, and real. Television creators are starting to develop distinctive styles. “Breaking Bad” represents good television moving beyond the big four stations. And no matter what anyone will say, there is still a place in the world for stories as good as “Breaking Bad.”