Breaking Bad: Season 1
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Breaking Bad: Season 1

One of the better plot devices for any kind of story telling is to place a reasonable man in the most unreasonable circumstances possible and sit back to watch what happens. We all have a point that the thin veneer of civilized behavior begins to break down. It is not that the person involved is intrinsically bad it is just that he is pressed by a set situation that leaves him little room to do the right thing. This concept was brilliantly shown in a little television series on the AMC network called ‘Breaking Bad’. That network, the American Movie Channel was never really known for its original programming but they are entering the foray with a solid hit. The premise is simple and unfortunately one that is all too real with many people in the audience. A high school chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is told by his doctor that he has terminal lung cancer. Although he has worked all of his life and is able to support is wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his disabled teenaged son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) they are just squeaking by financially. He has nothing that will ensure the fiscal survival of his family after his death. In a way that comes off as far more plausible that you might imagine he turns to his advance knowledge of chemistry to make crystal methamphetamine. This series opened the door for AMC to top the critical and popular lists of excellence with their follow up original series ‘Mad Men’. It used to be the broadcast networks had a lock on awarding winning series. Then the premium channels like HBO and Showtime came up with shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Dexter’. Now the cable networks in the middle of the lineup are stepping up to the plate with some of the best programming on TV today. This series is just an example of what can be done with this media besides those dreadful so called reality series. ‘Breaking Bad’ is at the pinnacle of writing, direction and acting and it is something that any true fan of drama will appreciate. As someone with a background in advanced biochemistry and whose life has been touched by cancer this series hit home for me. I found that this only heightened my appreciation of its commitment to quality in the production. One of my best friends turned me on to the show since like a lot of people I never thought to check AMC for new programming. I have been grateful to him for that recommendation and this quickly became one of the series we discuss at length after each episode. In case you did miss it first time around there is good news. It has been picked up for a second season and the first season is available on DVD through Sony Home entertainment. This at times brutally honest and has a depth to the emotional content that is rare seen on television.

The creator of the series was Vince Gilligan. He was a writer and producer for ‘The X Files’ and its spin off, ‘The Lone Gunmen’. He also co-wrote the recent Will Smith superhero flick ‘Hancock’. These certain give him the necessary credentials for a series of this imagination and emotional impact. Gilligan has done something that would seem on paper to be impossible. Walt is basically a drug dealer which is never the type of character that the audience can identify with or have even the slight degree of empathy towards such a man. Gilligan exhibits such taste and talent in the crafting of Walter that even though we cannot agree with the path he has chosen understand the set of circumstances that drove him to a life of crime and deception. It is ingrained in men in our society that the most important thing in life is to protect and provide for their families. Walter has just received the most catrostrophic news possible and has to face his own imminent mortality. Many stories have shown a librating factor that comes into play when life is about to be cut short. Walter doesn’t feel librated by the news; he is crushed. His wife is pregnant and their son has Cerebral Palsy. Like a lot of Americans he has worked his entire life barely making ends meet and is compelled to provide for his family after his death. Then an idea hits him. A slacker in one of his classes, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is suspected of dealing crystal meth. With Walter’s advanced knowledge of chemistry he is certain he can cook up the best, purist meth ever. He approaches Jesse, who goes by the name of ‘Captain Cook’ with the parameters of the arrangement. Walter wants a one shot deal that will yield enough money to sustain his family until they can get on their feet after his death. When Walter cooks up the first batch Jesse is amazed by the length of the resulting crystals. For those that might have forgotten their chemistry the length of a crystal is an indication of the purity. Impurities will result in the crystal breaking into smaller pieces instead of continuing to grow. The crystals that Walter produced were huge. Of course there are a few set backs when you are partnered with someone that not only knows the supply side of drugs but is too familiar with the demand part of the business. Jesse can’t help but to sample the goods. He also pulls the pair into the sights of a local drug dealer and his henchman. They demand Walter show them his technique but he whips up an explosive killing one and rendering the dealer unconscious. Walter feels that the dealer must die to protect their little drug business. Walter takes extraordinary precautions to prevent detection such as working in an RV in the desert and cooking the drug in his briefs to avoid the smell permeating his cloths. Still, the DEA gets wind of the operation and is after them. Adding a little perverse twist is the fact that one of Walter’s best friends is a DEA agent.

This may sound familiar to the Showtime hit ‘Weeds’ where a soccer mom deals with the death of her husband by selling pot but the similarities are only superficial. In this series there is none of the dark comedy that makes ‘Weeds’ such a great show. This is a full on drama that is done with the impact of a sledgehammer. Most television viewers will recognize Bryan Cranston as the hapless and bewildered father on ‘Malcolm in the Middle’. He was excellent there showing his command of comedy. In this series we get to see another aspect of this talented actors range. He is perfect as Walter. We feel for him immediately and can sympathize with his plight. We would like to think that we would never go down that illegal pathway but can emotionally understand how Walter became caught up in the criminal life. This series is also an indictment of the horrible economic times that we live in. A man can be well employed and never waste a dime yet finds that he is living from one paycheck to the next. With many retirement funds greatly diminished or completely gone this is a theme that resonates with the audience. This is a series that deserves attention and recognition as one of the best around.

Posted 02/17/09

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