Try as I may, I’m not feeling the love that so many other critics have for Breaking Bad, AMC’s latest original dramatic series. In it, Bryan Cranston portrays Walter White, the mildest of mild-mannered high school chemistry teachers. Walter has a teenage son, a pregnant wife, and has recently learned he has lung cancer that will likely kill him within a year. The White family is far from wealthy; let’s face it, the guy’s a teacher. In the pilot, he’s also pulling down a second job at a shitty car wash (where he’s easily manipulated by his sleazebag boss) and the family is just making ends meet. Like I said, Walter’s wife, Skyler is expecting, and their teenage son, Walter, Jr. has cerebral palsy. Realizing that he has no money to leave to his family, Walter schemes to score a truckload of money by making crystal meth. Using his chemistry know-how, he teams up with a local dealer, Jesse (who used to be one of his students) and winds up cooking the purest meth crystals their small New Mexico city has ever seen.
Before you cry “Weeds ripoff,” let me point out that this series is very dramatic. While there are some comedic moments, the focus is primarily on Walter’s transformation from law-abiding nobody to the Emiril Lagasse of meth. Cranston is simply marvelous as Walter, burying any trace of Hal, his breakthrough role in Malcolm in the Middle. With his red moustache and big, dorky glasses, Cranston’s Walter is the chemistry teacher we all poked fun at when we were in high school. There have been moments during the first four episodes when I’ve paused and remarked, “This is a brave performance.” In fact, all of the acting in this series has been some of the most nuanced I’ve seen this year. Anna Gunn, as Skyler, does an impeccable job playing the rigid wife often exasperated with her husband’s antics, yet still loves him dearly. RJ Mitte portrays Walter, Jr. with humor and a lot of heart. Mitte, who actually has cerebral palsy, is a true find. Aaron Paul is fine as the meth dealer, Jesse. Frankly, this role is pretty stock (troubled kid from privilege falls in with wrong crowd, loses his family, becomes drug addict), so Paul is doing his best to play the wide-eyed dopehead. One surprise has been Dean Norris as the character of Hank, Walter’s brother-in-law (who happens to be a DEA agent). On the job, Hank is an ass, and Norris excels at bringing out this annoying quality. But in private, especially with Walter, Jr., Hank is an affectionate and caring uncle. Norris is outstanding and fun to watch.
Breaking Bad has also enjoyed some excellent writing; the pilot hit all the right notes, and made me to watch again. Unfortunately, episode 2 suffered greatly and seemed to drag on forever. Walter and Jesse had to deal with the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. There was a lot of hand-wringing and “what are we going to do” moments, all of which I felt like I’d seen a thousand times on other shows. The writers redeemed themselves with the third episode, a pivotal moment in which Walter had to do something heinous to protect himself and his family (as if drug dealing wasn’t bad enough). Having just seen the fourth episode — in which he finally revealed to his family that he has cancer — I can say the writers have Walter going on an interesting journey. (Can someone please explain to me why characters that are dying in film and television always hide the truth from the family? Seriously, these are the people you love the most, they deserve to know. I know that if I received this type of news, the first person I would tell is my wife. After three episodes, I’m glad they put that subplot to rest.)
Technically, Breaking Bad has been very good, too. The editing and cinematography are as good as anything else on cable. Moreover, there appears to be a great group of talented technicians working the knobs in the sound department. So what’s the problem? How come, after four episodes, I’m ready to call strike three on Breaking Bad?
The best analogy I can offer is Radiohead, praised as the greatest band of its generation. Radiohead has released so many critics’ top 10 albums, Springsteen and U2 should be jealous. They’re considered required listening, and yet, I just can’t get into them. I listen to their records. I appreciate the fine craftsmanship that went into making the album. I think the way their instruments meld and form around each other is quite remarkable. Thom Yorke’s voice has the ability to do things that some electric instruments can’t even pull off. Their music can be haunting, beautiful, mysterious and downright scary. From all indications, I should love, love, love Radiohead. And yet…I just can’t get into them. There is something distant and unknowable about their music that prevents me from making that emotional or personal connection. This I the same problem I’m having with Breaking Bad.
One thing I’m having a hard time enjoying is the meth angle. I know, I know, I dig Weeds, and pot is considered a gateway drug, so what’s the difference? As far as I know, pot isn’t as destructive as meth. People don’t go insane and cut off other people’s heads or shove them in the oven because they’ve been smoking too much pot. I appreciate that creator Vince Gilligan had a very ingenious setup: chemistry teacher decides to start making meth. But the seriousness of drug addiction seems a little too irresponsible for the character they’ve established in Walter. The writers and producers have taken great pains to establish that Walter is a standup guy. Despite his grave diagnosis, I’m just not completely sold on him up and deciding to become a drug dealer. Another reason I’m having a difficult time opening my arms to the show is that there feels like an overall detachment between the characters and the audience. I feel like we’re watching yet another good program, but that’s all it is. I’m missing some sort of emotional swell in each episode to make me really feel for these characters. At times, it feels like I’m watching the Discovery Channel instead of AMC.
I’m sure I’ll keep watching Breaking Bad as the season continues, if only for Cranston’s performance alone (expect him to get an Emmy nomination). But I don’t rush to watch it, that’s for sure. If something doesn’t click soon, Breaking Bad will begin to gather digital dust in my TiVo, much like OK Computer gathers dust in my CD collection.