Teacher Feature: 'Breaking Bad' on AMC

Fresh Air's TV critic previews the new series Breaking Bad, about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who decides that cooking crystal meth is the best way to support his family after he's gone. The show premieres on the AMC cable channel on Jan. 20.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, Host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for TVworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Last year the American Movie Classics network set out to expand its horizons and begin producing and presenting original quality television shows. In 2007, AMC presented Robert Duvall in "Broken Trail," the best Western miniseries since "Lonesome Dove." AMC also presented "Mad Men," an ad agency drama set in 1960 that ended up on many TV critics' end of year top 10 lists, including mine. And now, this Sunday, comes another boldly, against-the-grain, attention-getting offer. This one is called "Breaking Bad." It's either a very black comedy or a very twisted, funny drama. After watching three episodes, I'm still not sure which.

BIANCULLI: a plate of scrambled eggs with the numbers 5-0 spelled out with strips of veggie bacon.

Walter might be ripe for a midlife crisis, but he soon learns, as do we, that midlife has long since passed him by. He's diagnosed as having inoperable lung cancer and given two years to live, tops. But even before he gets that bad news, he confronts death on a regular basis, in the classroom during his chemistry lectures.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Chemistry! It is the study of what? Anyone? Ben?

Unidentified Actor: (As Ben) Chemicals.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Chemicals! No! Chemistry is--well, technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just--just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules, molecules change their bonds. Huh? Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well, that's--that's all of life. Right? I mean, it's just the constant. It's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.

END OF SOUNDBITE

BIANCULLI: When Walter does learn about his cancer, he doesn't tell his wife or anyone else. Instead, he has what might be considered a chemical reaction and begins seething from within. Eventually he has an inspiration and decides to team up with a local drug dealer and use his scientific expertise to become the biggest crystal meth manufacturer in Albuquerque.

When I first heard about "Breaking Bad," that was where I grew skeptical. It sounded too much like "Weeds," the Showtime comedy starring Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban pot dealer. Also, a crystal meth cooker held little interest for me as a dramatic protagonist. But Vince Gilligan, the writer, director and creator of "Breaking Bad," will surprise you if you let him. He did the same thing for years as a writer-producer on "The X-Files," including one episode from 1999 which featured Bryan Cranston as the guest star. When Gilligan began writing "Breaking Bad," he was sure Cranston could fill the bill both comically and dramatically, and he does.

The two deserve equal credit for pulling off his very improbably trick of a TV series. Cranston gets credit for making Walter sympathetic, even when you know you should be rooting against him. And Gilligan gets credit for confounding expectations at every turn. You know how bad things were for Walter before he decided to provide for his family by cooking up batches of crystal meth? Well, things get so much worse for Walter and so quickly that you don't know how or if he's going to escape from the corner he's been painted into.

Sunday's premiere episode of "Breaking Bad" got my attention, and the next two episodes sent for preview won me over, as subplots and supporting characters rose to the surface. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, since it's a comedy drama about crystal meth, but "Breaking Bad" already has me hooked.

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