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January 17, 2008 - San Jose Mercury News (CA)

'Breaking Bad' Shines In A Dim TV Season

By Charlie McCollum

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In a TV world that has gone without writers for nearly three months and is drowning in a tsunami of reality programming, there are precious few rays of sunshine these days.

But, occasionally, something will pop up to remind us of just how good television can be when smart writers come up with an intriguing concept and execute it well. A case in p oint is "Breaking Bad," an edgy, challenging new series that debuts this Sunday at 10 on AMC.

"Breaking Bad" -- it's a Southern expression for "raising hell" -- is a Coen brothers-esque take on the life of one Walt White, a high school science teacher living a dull life in suburbia. Then, one day, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

With just a few months to live, Walt White "breaks bad," becoming a manufacturer of crystal meth to raise some fast money for his family and to give himself a few thrills before he goes.

Show creator Vince Gilligan -- best-known for his work on "The X-Files," including some landmark episodes as "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" -- says his intent from the beginning was to "take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface" (the memorable Al Pacino character from the 1983 film) "and then he drops dead of cancer."

More seriously, Gilligan says that "this has always been a story of metamorphosis and transformation. This is a guy who is in the process of reinventing himself and, not to give too much away, Walt really is not going to just dip a toe into this new world, he's actually doing to do a big cannonball right off the edge of the pool."

If "Breaking Bad" sounds a bit like "Weeds," the Showtime series about a suburban soccer mom who becomes a dope dealer, Gilligan hastens to point out that he came up with the idea before "Weeds" got on the air. In fact, he says, the first time he ever heard of "Weeds" was when he was trying to sell "Breaking Bad" to FX.

"I was so fortunate that I didn't know about 'Weeds' in advance because I might have said, 'Well, this is too much like "Weeds." ' I would have shut the whole thing down right then and there," Gilligan says.

"Now that I know about 'Weeds,' I've tried very hard to make our show even more different."

"Breaking Bad" is a good deal darker and more of a pure drama than "Weeds," although the show gets funnier as it goes along. For one thing, outside of the Drug Enforcement Administration, people tend to view marijuana as a rather benign drug. Crystal meth? That's nasty stuff and, as a plot point, it may explain why HBO, TNT and FX all passed on the series before AMC picked it up.

Even Gilligan acknowledges it will be hard for some people to relate.

Walt White, he says, "has colored inside the lines, played by the rules, his entire life. He's never so much as jaywalked and, suddenly, he's doing this despicable thing.

"And we don't shy away from that. Crystal meth is a much different drug than marijuana, and we don't defend his choice in the show. It's going to become clearer that he's made some very bad choices as the series progresses."

That, as you might expect, puts a fair amount of pressure on the actor playing Walt White to humanize someone who is doing a very bad thing. And Bryan Cranston -- best-known as Hal, the father on "Malcolm In the Middle" -- more than rises to the challenge, giving a beautifully crafted and shaded performance that lets you into White's soul.

Cranston wasn't really looking for a new series after "Malcolm" (he says most of the sitcoms he was offered were pretty bad). But, he says, the script for "Breaking Bad" was "just so compelling. I related to Walt White, I understood him, I knew who this guy was. I know people like him, anybody who lives with regret. There is a massive number of people who have that feeling of 'I should have, I could have, I wish I had' taken opportunities that were presented to me and, for some reason, didn't at the time.

"That's ultimately tragic and sympathetic. I thought if we could pull this off, we could ask the audience to at least understand the dilemma Walt White is going through -- if not accept or condone his actions."

Thanks to Gilligan's writing and the work of Cranston and a fine supporting cast headed by Anna Gunn ( "Deadwood" ) as his wife and Aaron Paul ("Big Love") as a former student who teaches White the meth trade, "Breaking Bad" succeeds.

It is a kind of modern morality play, engaging (even if White's actions are sometimes appalling) and provocative in the themes it explores.

Certainly, like the best television, it makes you think. About facing your own mortality, the choices people make in life and whether -- for better or for worse -- the approach of your own demise sets you free in very fundamental ways.

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