Review: Breaking Bad 1×1

Breaking Bad

In the US: Sundays, AMC, 10pm/9c

In the UK: Not yet acquired

Brace yourself. In just five paragraphs’ time, I’m going to be using the word Chekovian.

Okay, science geeks. Who here among us has never considered using their terrible knowledge for evil instead of good? Come on, fess up. You know you want to.

Only me, hey? Oh well… Woo ha ha.

Nevertheless, as you can probably tell from films like Revenge of the Nerds and Falling Down, there’s a whole lot of rage pent up in the nerdlier parts of the US population. And here’s comes a TV show from Vince Gilligan, former producer of The X-Files, about a high school chemistry teacher who decides to get rich by making crystal meth.

At this point, you might be tempted to switch off the show or not even tune in. But I think that would be a mistake.

For one thing, while it’s by no means an easy show – in many ways it could be described as Chekovian – it is darkly comic in multiple joyous ways.

But secondly, it’s from AMC. This is the channel’s second scripted drama series, the first being Mad Men and you know how good that is.*

Plot (copied from your partner’s exercise book while he wasn’t looking)

Break Bad (v.) 1. to challenge convention 2. to defy authority 3. to raise hell

Chemistry: the study of change. Meet Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher sleepwalking through life when, boom, a terminal diagnosis changes everything. Liberates him. Empowers him to use his chemistry skills anew: to man a rolling drug lab and finance the future for his struggling family. It’s an uncontrolled experiment with the American dream. And it finally wakes him up. Breaking Bad: Change the Equation.

Is it any good?
It’s clear that AMC has a winning template for its new dramas. Just like Mad Men, everything about Breaking Bad screams quality. It’s beautifully shot and directed. It has fantastic performances, particularly from Bryan Cranston. It has moments of dark comedy as well as full on, unfiltered drama and deft little character touches. And it does this without any real ostentation.

Sure there are little knowingly clever touches, like the title sequence that highlights letters in the cast names that correspond to elements in the Periodic Table (and yes, they are all real elements). And if you’ve seen Falling Down and similar films (even Love Potion No. 9), you’ll notice similar themes: the frustration with irritating parts of everyday life; the desire to open up a can of whoop ass on the cool kids; the desire to demonstrate that all that knowledge isn’t geeky but is really very valuable; how taking a walk on the wild side can make you feel more of a man. And so on.

But it does deal with things not commonly shown on TV: coping with terminal cancer; how crime can pay; middle Americans trying to live on tiny budgets, sometimes holding down two jobs to do it; having a disabled child. It’s clearly not been designed by committee, something in keeping with AMC’s ‘auteurs only’ policy for its new dramas.

It’s a little bit too surreal, a bit too “heightened reality” to really resonate or touch the level of Mad Men. But it’s still a fascinating bit of work.

Here’s a YouTube trailer.

Cast
Bryan Cranston – Walter White

Anna Gunn – Skyler White

Aaron Paul – Jesse Pinkman

Dean Norris – Hank Schrader

Betsy Brandt – Marie Schrader

RJ Mitte – Walter White Jr.

* If you haven’t watched Mad Men, get AMC if you’re in the US or BBC4 in the UK, because it’s top stuff