‘Breaking Bad’: Drug dealing has never been so sympathetic

breakingbad.jpgFROM JASON’S REMOTE CONTROL — First: I never liked Malcolm In the Middle. It was slapstick, obvious, annoying humor. By proxy, I always had a distaste for Bryan Cranston, who played Malcolm’s dad. Now I have to rearrange that in my head. The man is actually an actor, capable of acting.

Proof: Sunday’s premier of Breaking Bad on AMC.

I don’t know if it’s just the writer’s strike making me desperate for any new drama or if the dross has been floating to the surface lately, but this makes two premiers in a row that have completely grabbed my attention and defied expectations.

Breaking Bad introduces us to high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Cranston), who in the first episode is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. With just a couple of years to live, White is forced to reconsider his clean-collared, zero-cholesterol lifestyle — and he decides he doesn’t want to go to the grave without ever having taken any risks.

He’s liberated. “I am awake,” Hal White says. The sudden shift in perspective is so profound that when he runs into a former D-grade student who now runs an amateur meth operation, he decides to live on the edge.

Using his knowledge of basic high school chemistry, White sets up his own lab in an RV in the New Mexico desert, cooking huge crystals while wearing nothing but tighty-whiteys and a smock. It’s a strange place for professional ethics to come into play, but White decides he’s going to make his homebrew meth the “right” way — which draws the attention of local dealers.

The direction errs a bit in the stereotypical characterization of the Latino gangsters (they say “esse” more than once and even throw a “move it, homes” in there), but hits in terms of dark humor, soundtrack, overt sexuality, and moodily-lit hand-cam shots. It’s pretty sure that AMC — coming on the heels of Mad Men — is trying hard to emulate the gritty, hard-edged style of FX’s Nip/Tuck and HBO’s… well, everything. So far, it’s got my attention.

There’s one scene, especially, where Cranston et al impressed. Toward the end of the episode, he puts a gun under his chin as sirens draw close to his beached Winnebago and pulls the trigger. It’s just a smidgen more intense than Malcolm and inestimably raised my respect level.

There’s another scene where White is attacked and forced to fight back — using chemicals. It’s brutal. It’s ingenious. It’s the most creative shoot-out I’ve seen in years. And it should be noted that while White holds a gun for a good chunk of the episode, and even points it menacingly, he’s far more lethal with common household compounds even if he’s no real MacGyver.

Also, you can’t miss a laundered money gag in the last 5 minutes.

The one hitch that I can see detractors hauling out is White’s rather quick transition from upstanding citizen to moral turpitude. We’re talking about a near Anakin-to-Vader transition, here — but I think director Vince Gilligan succeeds where Lucas just Frankensteined. There’s enough soul-searching anguish crammed on to Cranston’s face to make it believable (or at least make me want to suspend my disbelief).

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