New Habit: Breaking Bad

While AMC’s original series Mad Men has garnered the lion’s share of the basic-cable channel’s accolades over the past two years, there’s another potentially addictive show lurking in the AMC stable. Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as a New Mexico high school chemistry teacher who reacts to his terminal cancer diagnosis by concocting a dangerous get-rich-quick scheme: he starts cooking up the best crystal meth in the Southwest, and partnering with a troubled ex-student to sell it. The seven episodes of Breaking Bad’s strike-shortened first season arrived on DVD February 24, two weeks ahead of the series’ March 8 Season Two premiere, which gives the uninitiated plenty of time to catch up with this darkly comic, deeply compassionate take on the moral consequences of living and dying. (Photo: Bryan Cranston as Walter White; Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman. Courtesy of AMC)

If you need one episode to convince you of Breaking Bad’s magnificence, try the third one, “…And The Bag’s In The River,” in which Cranston’s increasingly desperate character weighs whether to kill a rival drug dealer he has shackled in his partner’s basement. (On the teacher’s pro-con list: “Con: Judeo-Christian principles; Pro: He’ll kill you and your entire family if you let him go.”) Cranston won an Emmy last year for a performance that teeters between stricken, angry and ruthless. But most of the credit for the show’s skewed perspective belongs to creator Vince Gilligan, a former X-Files writer who keeps Breaking Bad’s focus on the thousand petty crimes we all commit each day, and challenges the viewer to pass judgment. It’s rare to see such a complex inquiry into values on television—let alone one with dialogue so sharp and performances so sympathetic.