Creating a new TV network in America must be a bit like trying to get into the oil industry – there isn’t much to go around and the people that produce it currently are quite keen to keep it to themselves. It is astounding then that AMC, a relative fledgling when it comes to original programming, have carved themselves a distinctive and well respected niche with their output.
First they made Madmen, a show which you can rest assured will be discussed on these pages, and went on to follow it with the equally sublime Breaking Bad. Far removed from the lush environs of Madison Avenue boardrooms, Breaking Bad takes place in the parched sands of Albuquerque, New Mexico and follows the earnest, intense story of chemistry teacher Walter White, played with explosive aplomb by Brian Cranston.
At the show’s advent he is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and given little chance of survival beyond a couple of years. Marooned in the financial sinkhole of his job and with a baby on the way, as well as his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) and son Walter Junior (RJ Mitte) to support, his desperation turns him to selling methamphetamine and a life of crime – in effect he “breaks bad”.
Just as with the Sopranos a summary of Breaking Bad sounds like a high concept show gone awry. Despite the simplistic nature of the teacher turned drug dealer dynamic Breaking Bad has consistently produced some of the most moving television with a monolithic central performance from Cranston, better known to British audiences as the hapless Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, that deserves every shred of the award ceremony hype and critical acclaim showered upon it.
Centrally it is a show about masculinity and mortality set in the heightened wasteland of the American city. In this case the sun ravaged streets of New Mexico make a nice change from the staple sheen of east coast American cities. As Walt becomes hopelessly embroiled in the world of the drug trade, his skills as a gifted chemist make his ‘product’ highly desirable for a number of unscrupulous people, a tragic tale of remarkable scope is played out.
The father–son relationship that ebbs and flows between Walt and his ex-pupil Jesse Pinkman, played with caustic brilliance by Aaron Paul, who acts as his conduit to the criminal world, is so beautifully rendered as to leave you with the impression that the show could easily be a two hander – a savage odd couple show.
This though would be to do a disservice to the ensemble cast that make Breaking Bad special, especially Dean Norris as Walt’s Brother in law Hank and Bob Odenkirk as the deliciously corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman, a man who makes the Wire‘s Maurice Levy look like an angel.
They play an increasingly integral role as the three currently available series progress and become complicit in the dire sprawl of Walt’s rapidly out of control money making schemes. Breaking Bad’s strength lies in the fact that it is constantly and fluidly shifting the very heart of the show. The manner in which season three ends, literally and figuratively with a bang, is inconceivable when you first set out with Walt into the heart of darkness. In keeping the show relevant, unknowable and dangerous Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, and his team have created a rare alchemy – and one of the greatest TV shows of all time.