Friday, January 25, 2008

"Breaking Bad" May Not Be "Weeds," But It Breaks Pretty Good

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

No matter what you think about "Breaking Bad" (AMC, with new episodes airing for the first time on Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern), you have to hand it to executive producer Vince Gilligan. He really knows how to get your attention.

The show's pilot begins with Walter White (Bryan Cranston, unrecognizable from his days as the dad on "Malcolm in the Middle"), dressed only in a pair of tighty-whities and a gas mask strapped to his face, wildly driving a Winnebago filled with three lifeless bodies through a barren New Mexico desert. After crashing the vehicle, Walter hears sirens, so he puts on his shirt, points his pistol at the open road, and waits.

Is Gilligan, a former executive producer of "The X Files," who wrote and directed the pilot, trying too hard, or do the first few minutes of "Breaking Bad" suck you in? Well, a little of both. While the opening smacks of "Wouldn't it be cool if?" bravado, I dare anyone to watch Cranston's gonzo performance and not want to see what happens next.

Of course, Gilligan is no fool. You don't see what happens next, but instead are transported to three weeks earlier, where we meet a Walter that can't possibly be the same guy we've just watched. He's a meek, broke chemistry teacher, forced to work a second job at a car wash, and an easy target for his alpha male, Neanderthal brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent who seems to enjoy humiliating Walter for sport. When Hank gets Walter to hold his gun, the timidity Walter displays makes you wonder how he ever gets to be the guy nearly naked and armed in the New Mexico desert.

We soon find out that Walter and his loyal-but-put-upon wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), are parents to a smart-tongued teenage son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), who suffers from cerebral palsy, leaving him with slurred speech, a need for crutches, and daily challenges, such as an inability to dress himself in the fitting room during a family shopping trip. (Mitte actually has a mild case of the condition.)

Just when you think Walter's life can't get any worse, he passes out at the car wash and is subsequently informed that he has inoperable lung cancer. Rather than freak out, he is more concerned with the mustard stain on the doctor's lab coat. It's as if Walter is freed by his diagnosis, allowing him to assert his masculinity (he later physically confronts a tough guy who is making fun of his son's disability in the clothing store) and, ultimately, to "break bad" and enter a life of crime.

Walter, with his renewed vigor for life, goes for a ride-along on one of Hank's meth lab busts, where he witnesses Jesse (Aaron Paul), an old student of his (that he failed), escaping from a neighbor's window (he was sleeping with her). Walter decides that rather than turn the kid in, to make money for his family, he should use his expertise in chemistry to go into business with the now partnerless Jesse. Eventually, using Walter's last $7000, they buy a Winnebago and drive to the middle of nowhere to cook up their product. Walter strips to his underwear so as not to come home smelling like meth, and we start to see how he found himself in the situation that opens the episode.

While Jesse fancies himself an artist and master meth cooker (calling himself "Capt. Cook," complete with matching vanity license plates), Walter soon proves himself to be even better, developing a batch of the drug that amazes a previously skeptical Jesse.

Every plot point of "Breaking Bad" feels like it has been scripted according to the schematic of a Robert McKee-like formula, with Walter's misfortunes arriving in perfect intervals to compound the desperation of his life. Gilligan even employs the most tired of foreshadowing tactics, having Walter break into coughing spells to portend his imminent diagnosis of a fatal disease.

But the show also rings true in a way that few other television programs would have the guts to be. When Walter tells Jesse that he can't sample the meth, saying, "we sell, we don't use," Jesse is completely unaffected, telling Walter that he has watched too many drug movies. It was a point in most shows where the previously battling odd couple partners would have found "the moment" of bonding, but Gilligan never lets you (or Walter) off the hook for what Walter is doing and who he is doing it with. Jesse may see himself as an artist, but he's a meth manufacturer and user, not exactly a resume that would predict stability and reliability. The point is successfully hammered home when Jesse's miscalculation allows his former partner and the partner's cousin (a dealer with the requisite fighting pit bull) to pounce and threaten Jesse and Walter's lives, leading to Walter's near-naked drive through the desert.

Even though "Breaking Bad" is plotted to within an inch of its life, Gilligan's tough-minded approach to Walter gives the show integrity. He doesn't vilify Walter for his choices, but he doesn't absolve or glorify him, either. It is no coincidence that the pilot ends with Walter coming home from his near-miss with the two thugs, getting into his bed, and forcefully taking a shocked (but, seemingly, very aroused) Skyler from behind.

I'm not sure why so many writers have referred to "Breaking Bad" as a dark comedy. The "dark" part is dead-on. Cranston must be in heaven playing a guy like Michael Douglas's character in "Falling Down" who is busting out after years of keeping all his rage inside. Cranston, after all, has spent years playing lovable buffoons. His commitment is evident, no more so than when he parades around in his underwear, unabashedly exhibiting the flab of a 50-year-old high school teacher. There are moments here and there where you may laugh a bit, usually from shear discomfort (as in the dorkiness and lack of coordination Walter shows when he tries to trash his car wash boss's merchandise upon quitting), but anyone coming to "Breaking Bad" looking for comedy will be sorely disappointed. That's okay, though. As a dark drama about one man's descent into the drug world in a misguided (or maybe not, depending how you look at it) attempt to take care of his family, the show certainly works.

It's hard to believe I've written this much about "Breaking Bad" without addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: The Showtime series "Weeds" (currently between seasons). After three years of Nancy Botwin (a radiant and pitch-perfect Mary Louise Parker) dealing marijuana to keep her two kids and flaky brother-in-law living in their Southern California McMansion after the untimely death of her husband, "Breaking Bad" sounds like a knock-off of "Weeds." While, admittedly, the pitches share some basic elements, the shows feel completely different.

"Weeds" is truly a dark comedy, driven mostly by its array of interesting, quirky and original characters. From Kevin Nealon's pot-smoking, crucifix-stealing accountant (yes, he steals a giant cross off of the top of a church and stows it in a marijuana grow house), to Elizabeth Perkins's angry, maternally challenged PTA mom gone bad, to Tonye Patano's pot-growing, tough-as-nails grandmother, when you visit Agrestic and Majestic, the McCommunities featured in the show, you're never too far from a moment of comic brilliance.

And yet, "Weeds," like "Breaking Bad," is situated firmly on the dark side. Sure, Nancy is intelligent and resilient, which makes you root for, at least a little, but she has paid the price for her willingness to deal drugs to keep up her family's lifestyle. She's watched her older son enter the business, her younger son go mad, her second husband die at the hands of drug lords, and herself essentially be sold into slavery to pay off a debt to a ruthless kingpin, blackmailed by a sleazy private investigator, and close to apprehension by the law, leading up to the final moment of last season, when she ignites her McMansion as wild fires burn Agrestic and Majestic to the ground. It's an act of catharsis as much as an effort to destroy evidence.

That "Weeds" can combine first-rate comedy with gut-wrenching, consequence-laden drama, not to mention a large, multidimensional, multicultural, and well-developed ensemble of characters you want to see more of, led by the prodigious talents of Parker, who manages to keep you invested in a character that is, after all, a drug dealer neglecting her kids, is an epic television achievement that sets the bar pretty high for "Breaking Bad." While "Breaking Bad" isn't up to the level of "Weeds," it's fine, because "Breaking Bad" is pretty damn good on its own. Gilligan has said in media interviews that he was developing his show long before "Weeds" hit the air, and it shows, since it's not trying to be anything other than itself. Cranston is the real revelation here. He is a pretty compelling lead, showing a range that, frankly, I didn't think he had in him.

In fact, if you told me six months ago that I could turn on my television and see Cranston driving a meth-lab Winnebago in his underwear through the New Mexico desert, I would have figured that you were making use of Nancy Botwin's services a bit too much. But now that I've seen it, I have to admit it: I am interested in seeing where Cranston's character is going next.