As the clueless, hapless and hopeless father of four on the celebrated series MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, Bryan Cranston came into his own, as he did an amazing balancing act that juggled slapstick, pathos and insanity all at once, proving that not only did "father NOT know best", but more than likely never would.
Now he essays the role of another father in the new series BREAKING BAD, but it's a shocking, bracingly refreshing turn that takes his 'Three Stooges' repertoire of grunts, shrieks, barks and neurotic ticks and virtually throws them out the window. Some of those qualities are still there, but unlike MALCOLM, BREAKING is the blackest of black comedies. When I first heard about it, the reviews I read compared it heavily (and favorably) to the Coen Brothers' dark crime comedy FARGO. And the comparisons are aptly warranted.
This is one of those series where the less you know about it going in, the better, but just to set your mind reeling with the possibilities, here it is in a nutshell: Cranston plays high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who is constantly battling the lackadaisical attitudes of his disinterested students, the looming specter of financial disaster - by supplementing his paltry teacher's salary with a second job at a local car wash, and trying to cope with the impending arrival of a new baby, even as he and his wife raise their disabled teenage son, whom unlike many stereotypical portrayals of handicapped kids is no Pollyanna-like angel.
Then in the midst of all this, Walter makes a shocking discovery: he has inoperable lung cancer, and therefore only a few years left to live at best. Facing the very real possibility of leaving his family struggling not only with his death, but a financial situation that could only end in catastrophe, Walter suddenly has a revelation, thanks to an idea handed to him by his boorish brother-in-law, who works with the DEA - he decides to become a crystal meth dealer.
Okay, so while you're letting your brain take that all in, you also need to know that this is one of those defining roles where you just know that the lead actor will get Emmy recognition, whether he intended to or not. That is just how good Cranston is as Walter. In fact, he's every bit as good as Michael C. Hall's Dexter Morgan, James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano or Harold Perrineau's criminally under-appreciated Augustus Hill. And he's backed by an amazing supporting cast of mostly new or unfamiliar faces (with the exception of Dean Norris as the brother-in-law).
You can tell from the word 'go' that writer/producer/director Vince Gilligan (former head writer/exec producer on THE X FILES) has been champing at the bit for a while to let fly with a project like this. And if the first episode is any indication, AMC has another real winner on its hands. So MAD MEN will need to move over and make some room...since BREAKING BAD isn't the kind of series to "ask nicely."
Which brings up another important point: this is not a series for everyone, the way that FARGO and Showtime's kindred-spirit drug dramedy WEEDS are not mainstream, either. This is sharp, biting, satirical social commentary that draws blood when it sinks its teeth in, and you are guaranteed to wince even as you laugh out loud at Cranston's dead-on portrayal of a MAN on the edge of a nervous breakdown (well, more like over the edge.)
A caveat for would-be viewers, though, and a very ironic one at that: AMC has applied its ham-fisted method of editing its movies to this series as well, unfortunately, making the channel the LAST place you want to see it. The best thing to do is to check out the premiere episode whenever you can catch a rerun on AMC, then hustle on over to iTunes and download it so you can watch it again. Some very important scenes and some impressive establishing shots have been "edited for time and content" from the broadcast version, and this is material that IS essential to your experience viewing this show. There is a lot more to the characters and situations than you will be allowed to see on basic cable. So as you watch, keep that in mind.
And after you are done marveling at this magnificent character study sketched in desperation, you can wonder as I did, whether Bryan Cranston will bother preparing a speech for next year's Emmys. I sure hope he does...thanks to his work on BREAKING BAD, he'll need it.
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