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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
A new FX drama series "American Horror Story" premiered last week. And last night's AMC's "Breaking Bad" presented its season finale. Our TV critic David Bianculli is eager to talk about both of them.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: If you don't want to hear details, especially about last night's season finale of "Breaking Bad," turn down your radio volume for a few minutes. But I consider it fair game to talk in detail about TV shows once they've been televised - especially if they're doing interesting enough work to be saluted for it.
BIANCULLI: I was blown away by the season ender of "Breaking Bad." For its season finale, it set up a high-stakes showdown, with the cold-blooded drug kingpin Gus on one side, and the newly reconciled Walter White and Jesse Pinkman - former partners in Gus's high-tech meth lab - on the other. Each side wanted the other dead, but both sides were on guard. In last week's episode, Jesse successfully lured Gus to a local hospital, and Walter's plan was to plant and ignite a bomb under Gus's car. But Gus, intuitively, left the car in the parking lot, and found another ride home. That left Walter, in the opening minute of the season finale, to dismantle the bomb in frustration and bring it into the hospital, hidden in a knapsack. He sits next to Jesse, who's sitting in the hallway outside a pediatric intensive ward, and the two exchange words. Bryan Cranston plays Walter, Aaron Paul plays Jesse. And why I love this scene so much is because it is such an amazing high wire act. It's absurdly funny, and intensely dramatic, all at the same time. In short, it's why I adore "Breaking Bad."
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BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walter) What did you say to Gus because he's on to us. Yeah.
AARON PAUL: (as Jesse) (Unintelligible) he's on to us?
CRANSTON: (as Walter) Walking to his car and (unintelligible) – what does he have, some kind of sixth sense? Jesus, what did you say to him.
PAUL: (as Jesse) Could ask my own question right now. Did you just bring a bomb into the hospital?
CRANSTON: (as Walter) What? Was I supposed to leave without his car. What (ph) you're supposed to bring into a hospital?
PAUL: (as Jesse) Oh, my god.
CRANSTON: (as Walter) Where can we find Gus? Name a place, name me one place where I could surprise him where he won't see me coming. Because in the house, the laundry, the restaurant, the factory farm, they are all wired with cameras. One place. Think. Jesse, think. Where is it? Where? Because if you can't tell, we are dead.
BIANCULLI: For the rest of the finale, there were scenes that made me laugh, and scenes that made me drop my jaw. In order, those would be Bob Odenkirk's scenes as lawyer Saul Goodman and the final showdown with Gus. And, as always with this series, there was a final image that will linger with me until new episodes arrive again. This time, the camera slowly closed in on a flower pot in Walter's back yard, eventually identifying it as a variety of poisonous plant - which, in turn, identified Walter as the true perpetrator of the crime he had accused Gus of doing. In true Machiavellian fashion, Walter had framed Gus and risked killing a young kid, all to get Jesse back on his side and against Gus.
Series creator Vince Gilligan said from the start, he wanted to take Walter White, and viewers, on a journey, following the central character as he changes from meek hero to forceful villain. In this fourth season finale, "Breaking Bad" delivered on that promise, brilliantly. By the end of this season, Walter isn't just breaking bad. He's broken.
With "American Horror Story, it's harder to believe the show's creators have a five-year plan but at least, after having seen the first three episodes, I can promise there's a short-term one.
Series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who worked together on "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck," have a history of letting their shows go all over the place. "American Horror Story" starts all over the place, then slowly reveals the logic and history of it all.
BIANCULLI: The central story has Connie Britton, from "Friday Night Lights," and Dylan McDermott, from "The Practice," as a couple whose marriage is in trouble. She's just had a miscarriage, he's just had an affair - and they move to the West Coast, with their teen daughter in tow, to see if a new environment can spark a new start - except they can't pass up an unbelievably tempting real-estate deal, and move into a house whose previous tenants were found dead.
BIANCULLI: The house comes with its own housekeeper, played by Frances Conroy from "Six Feet Under," and a creepy neighbor, played by Jessica Lange. Last week's premiere was a polarizing jumble of images, characters, scares and subplots - some people hated it, but I really, really liked it. And knowing what's to come, in the next two weeks, only has me liking it more.
It helps to know, for example, the prologue that opened the pilot episode, showing the house at a different point in its history, is a recurring theme each week, like the flashback device on "Lost." And it may encourage reluctant viewers to give the show another chance if they know that, even by episode three, a few mysteries will indeed be solved. Like, for example, why the elderly housekeeper has one dead eye.
And in addition to secrets, there also are scares - as when, in this week's episode, Connie Britton's Vivien has a late-night visitor at the door while her husband is out of town. Vivien may sound paranoid peering through the peep hole and reacting to the female voice on the other side of the door, but she has every right to be.
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CONNIE BRITTON: (as Vivien) Who is it?
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UNIDENIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Excuse me, ma'am. I don't want to bother you, but I'm hurt and I need some help.
BRITTON: (as Vivien) What happened to you?
ACTOR: (as character) I'm hurt and needing some help. Open the door.
BRITTON: (as Vivien) You said that. Can you tell me what happened? How did you get hurt?
ACTOR: (as character) Can't you see the blood on my face. He's out here. Let me in. What kind of woman are you? He's coming. He's going to stab me.
BRITTON: (as Vivien) I'm going to get help. I'm calling 9-1-1.
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BIANCULLI: These two shows, "Breaking Bad" and "American Horror Story," are by no means at the same level. "Breaking Bad," along with AMC's "Mad Men" ranks as the best drama on TV right now. "American Horror Story," like many of its characters, starts off as more of an intriguing oddity. But both shows have me thinking about them long after I've turned off the TV set - which, for me, is the mark of must-see TV.
GROSS: Bianculli is founder and editor of Tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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