Breaking Bad could be the best show on television. I say “could be” because I haven’t seen enough of its competition to make a fair and adequate comparison. But one look at the beginning of Vince Gilligan and Mark Johnson’s breakthrough new series will have you undeniably hooked.
A speeding Winnebago hurtles down a desert highway. Inside, the driver is frantic. He wears a heavy apron, whitey-tidies, and nothing else. Elsewhere, a younger person, perhaps a teenager, collapses against the dashboard on the passenger side. Is he dead? Probably, but it’s too early to tell. The Winnebago screeches to a halt. The driver gets out. Grabs a gun. Considers shooting himself. Pulls the trigger, but there are no bullets. Moments later, a round misfires into the dirt. So begins the fatalistic journey of Walt White, a chemistry teacher stricken with lung cancer who turns to cooking and selling crystal methamphetamine with a former student in order to leave his family enough money after he’s gone.
Where this premise comes from, I may never fully understand, but I’m so glad it’s here, and that we the viewers get to experience it. Built with the kind of originality rarely seen on TV and almost never found at the Cineplex, Breaking Bad is a show where all the elements combine to lift the others up. The writing is incredible. Filled with dark twists and laugh-out-loud humor, the show’s team of scribes takes something as dirty and unappealing as crystal meth and turns it into a plot device that fuels the humor, excitement, and understanding, you’re sure you won’t have for these characters going in.
These are well-drawn characters. Walter (Bryan Cranston from Seinfeld, King of Queens, and Malcolm in the Middle) takes a step away from his usually goofy secondary characters, and becomes a true leading man with a heart deserving of our sympathy, even as we find his descent reprehensible. He makes viewers believe his character would have gone on playing by the rules had a) the deck not been unequivocally stacked against him, and b) he not loved his doting wife and handicapped son so much as to want to provide for their needs after he’s gone.
As for the other performances – well, it’s hard to say a single star steals the show, though if any one of these actors were on another series it would be difficult for their cast mates to measure up. From Anna Gunn’s loving, resilient performance as the fighting-her-way-out-of-the-dark wife Skyler to Aaron Paul’s at-once-predictable, but ultimately layered walk among the worlds of addiction, pushing, and building character, this series has enough going on at the surface and under it to turn viewers into addicts.
Shot in a pristine 1.78:1 widescreen ratio, Breaking Bad does not look like a television series, but rather a nearly six-hour long movie of twists, turns, and both physical and emotional cliffhangers. It’s a vibrant, colorful mess with fleabag motel ambience. You’ll find the cinematography exceedingly beautiful even as it renders the ugliness of story and characters into a grotesque tapestry.
Continuing in the cinematic pedigree, the disc’s audio boasts a fabulous 5.1 English track that rings sharp and clear with appropriate volume levels to dialog and action. You get a chance to immediately see what the disc is capable of in the first scene of the first episode, as Cranston’s White speeds toward what feels like an ominous conclusion that is really just a beginning of sorts. The Winnebago’s movements and approaching sirens carry with them every bit the strength of a big-budget feature.
Two audio commentaries, one on the pilot, and another on the episode “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”: Both of these feature creator Gilligan and star Cranston as well as other members of cast and crew as they discuss details involving the headlining episode.
Making of Breaking Bad: This short feature is not unlike many short reel making-of productions you’ll find on standard special editions these days. Nothing too in-depth, but a nice overview of the series…
Screen Tests: Quite fun and worth a one-time look to see how the actors began for comparison to their final products.
Deleted Scenes: It’s uncertain to me how much of what is cut in to the DVD episodes was left out of the AMC broadcasts. I would imagine a great deal. With that said, these additional deleted scenes weren’t worthy of turning up in the finished product, but they’re a fun one-time watch just the same.
Inside Breaking Bad takes more of a behind-the-scenes approach, and is a nice companion to the Making of Breaking Bad feature.
AMC Shootout – Interview with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, and Mark Johnson: The full-length episode digs even deeper into the development and relations between series star, creators, and their straight-from-the-gate synergy.
Rounding out the disc is a one-time throwaway photo gallery.
Breaking Bad dares to be different and succeeds admirably. It also gives its star Cranston the opportunity to enter the realms of the A-list, and he does so as if it is where he’s always belonged. Still, with that said, it’s hard to imagine Breaking Bad as a springboard to anything bigger and better, because on its own, it’s pretty hard to beat. So is this package with its breathtaking A/V and boatload of bonuses. Don’t even question the impulse to pick this one up, and give in to the addiction.