The man behind the meth

Breaking Bad (AMC, Sundays, 10 pm)

There’s something gutsy about Breaking Bad. It ain’t the normal-Joe-becomes-drug-dealer scenario. Post Weeds, a character like Bryan Cranston’s cancer-riddled chemistry teacher Walter White doesn’t seem implausible, nor does his decision to cook methamphetamine as a kind of life-insurance policy for his family. It ain’t the cursing, which is abundant but strangely muted. AMC seems to have greenlighted a show with HBO-level language, only to have balked last-minute, dubbing out the worst cursing and placing the show easily below FX-type grit. It isn’t even the way creator Vince Gilligan has portrayed the meth game, with a caustic naturalism and gore that will surely shock the pure of heart.

No, the thing that really feels fresh about Breaking Bad is the ratio of these things. The show dedicates about an episode-and-a-half to the back-biting and vagaries of liquefying a body with acid — what kind of acid to use; what kind of container said acid won’t melt through; the trouble of finding such a container at the local hardware store. In contrast, the series spends less than 20 minutes poking impressionistically at Walter’s financial situation, the thing that leads him to manufacture what is perhaps the worst drug ever dreamt up.

During the day, Walter’s a teacher who gets little respect. At night, he’s a car-wash cashier who gets even less. At home, his wife treats him like a lovable cold fish. There are no grand soliloquies about Walter’s hard luck. Nor does Gilligan stage any maxed-out-credit-card scene to hammer home the fact that the family barely gets by. There’s zero sermonizing.

Instead, we get those little clues and are left to piece the plight together. We see the exhaustion in Walter’s eyes, the resignation. We see that car wash and we wonder why anyone would subject himself to so much hardscrabble hell. Under what circumstances would we ourselves take a second job at a car wash? We get it. Times must be really tough.

So much drama — on TV, in theaters, and on stage — foists big, stagey exposition upon the audience, not trusting us to comprehend whatever point’s being made. Breaking Bad isn’t brilliantly written or shot, and it isn’t bitingly original, but it does that one incredibly gutsy thing: It trusts us to get it.•

See also

How to Look Good Naked The name certainly sounds exploitive, as do promo photos of plus-sized women in their underwear. The idea, though, is pretty damn humane. Carson Kressley’s mission is to forego radical reconstruction and weight loss for rehabilitation of women’s self-
image issues. (Lifetime, Fridays, 9 pm)

Dexter Given the squad-room cursing and the copious amounts of blood and gore, you’d think a series like Showtime’s awesome Dexter would be just about the last choice to bring from pay cable to CBS. Thanks to the strike, though, Season One is showing in its entirety. (CBS, Sunday, 10 pm)

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