Pubdate: Thu, 17 Jan 2008
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2008 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Charlie McCollum


In a TV world that has gone without writers for nearly three months
and is drowning in a tsunami of reality programming, there are
precious few rays of sunshine these days.

But, occasionally, something will pop up to remind us of just how good
television can be when smart writers come up with an intriguing
concept and execute it well. A case in point is "Breaking Bad," an
edgy, challenging new series that debuts this Sunday at 10 on AMC.

"Breaking Bad" - it's a Southern expression for "raising hell" - is a
Coen brothers-esque take on the life of one Walt White, a high school
science teacher living a dull life in suburbia. Then, one day, he is
diagnosed with terminal cancer. With just a few months to live, Walt
White "breaks bad," becoming a manufacturer of crystal meth to raise
some fast money for his family and to give himself a few thrills
before he goes.

Show creator Vince Gilligan - best-known for his work on "The
X-Files," including some landmark episodes as "Jose Chung's From Outer
Space" - says his intent from the beginning was to "take Mr. Chips and
turn him into Scarface" (the memorable Al Pacino character from the
1983 film) "and then he drops dead of cancer."

More seriously, Gilligan says that "this has always been a story of
metamorphosis and transformation. This is a guy who is in the process
of reinventing himself and, not to give too much away, Walt really is
not going to just dip a toe into this new world, he's actually doing
to do a big cannonball right off the edge of the pool."

If "Breaking Bad" sounds a bit like "Weeds," the Showtime series about
a suburban soccer mom who becomes a dope dealer, Gilligan hastens to
point out that he came up with the idea before "Weeds" got on the air.
In fact, he says, the first time he ever heard of "Weeds" was when he
was trying to sell "Breaking Bad" to FX.

"I was so fortunate that I didn't know about 'Weeds' in advance
because I might have said, 'Well, this is too much like "Weeds." ' I
would have shut the whole thing down right then and there," Gilligan

"Now that I know about 'Weeds,' I've tried very hard to make our show
even more different."

"Breaking Bad" is a good deal darker and more of a pure drama than
"Weeds," although the show gets funnier as it goes along. For one
thing, outside of the Drug Enforcement Administration, people tend to
view marijuana as a rather benign drug. Crystal meth? That's nasty
stuff and, as a plot point, it may explain why HBO, TNT and FX all
passed on the series before AMC picked it up.

Even Gilligan acknowledges it will be hard for some people to

Walt White, he says, "has colored inside the lines, played by the
rules, his entire life. He's never so much as jaywalked and, suddenly,
he's doing this despicable thing.

"And we don't shy away from that. Crystal meth is a much different
drug than marijuana, and we don't defend his choice in the show. It's
going to become clearer that he's made some very bad choices as the
series progresses."

That, as you might expect, puts a fair amount of pressure on the actor
playing Walt White to humanize someone who is doing a very bad thing.
And Bryan Cranston - best-known as Hal, the father on "Malcolm In the
Middle" - more than rises to the challenge, giving a beautifully
crafted and shaded performance that lets you into White's soul.

Cranston wasn't really looking for a new series after "Malcolm" (he
says most of the sitcoms he was offered were pretty bad). But, he
says, the script for "Breaking Bad" was "just so compelling. I related
to Walt White, I understood him, I knew who this guy was. I know
people like him, anybody who lives with regret. There is a massive
number of people who have that feeling of 'I should have, I could
have, I wish I had' taken opportunities that were presented to me and,
for some reason, didn't at the time.

"That's ultimately tragic and sympathetic. I thought if we could pull
this off, we could ask the audience to at least understand the dilemma
Walt White is going through - if not accept or condone his actions."

Thanks to Gilligan's writing and the work of Cranston and a fine
supporting cast headed by Anna Gunn ("Deadwood") as his wife and Aaron
Paul ("Big Love") as a former student who teaches White the meth
trade, "Breaking Bad" succeeds.

It is a kind of modern morality play, engaging (even if White's
actions are sometimes appalling) and provocative in the themes it explores.

Certainly, like the best television, it makes you think. About facing
your own mortality, the choices people make in life and whether - for
better or for worse - the approach of your own demise sets you free in
very fundamental ways.
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