I just finished watching the 7-episode first season of Breaking Bad on DVD and wanted to echo the good things Todd has been saying about the show over at HND. (Most recently here) On it's face the show's premise doesn't sound sustainable, or at best like something that would last a few episodes over on FX. But appearances can be deceiving....
Just like Lost isn't really a show about an island or BSG wasn't really a show about space, Breaking Bad is only superficially about the making and selling of crystal meth. High school chemistry teacher Walter (deserved Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with cancer in the pilot and latches on to the drug idea as a way to ensure his family's financial future after seeing a TV report on a huge bust made by his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). The show is very specific about Walter's economic situation: he's as underpaid as any public school teacher and his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) is pregnant with an unexpected second child and apparently doesn't work. (There's also a disabled teenage son, Walter Jr., well played by RJ Mitre) Walter is forced to take a demeaning second job at a car wash in order to get the work of providing for his family done.
Series creator Vince Gilligan wisely doesn't oversell the show's criminal element, which isn't scary in a vague, glamorous way like so many TV drug dealers. The men that Walter and his ex-student partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) sell their product to are sociopathic, violent, and dangerously stupid and Walter's initial attempts to reach out to the dealers who can move sufficient quantity of his product are believably inept with bloody results. Although this is Cranston's show without question, Aaron Paul holds up his end and gives Jesse some needed depth as we get more information about his background.
In an extra on the Season One DVD, Cranston talks about a seemingly inconsequential scene in the pilot in which Walter demonstrates a chemical reaction to his students. The way Cranston plays the scene shows how much joy Walter takes both in teaching and in the scientific process himself, and it's a time efficient way of showing just what kind of man Walter is - or was before he wound up teaching high school in New Mexico. At first I was disappointed that Gilligan doesn't provide more background on what took Walter from working on research that contributed to the Nobel prize (according to a plaque we see on his wall in the pilot) to his humdrum teaching career. Later Walter and Skylar attend a party at the home of an ex-colleague who (it's implied) has gotten rich running a company that was started based on work Walter played a major role in and is married to a woman (Jessica Hecht) with whom Walter had a history. All the flashbacks in the world can only take an audience so far; what matters isn't so much the details of how Walter go where he is but that he has the intelligence, energy, and passion to walk a dangerous path in an attempt leave something for Skylar and his children.
So far in Season 2 the net has tightened slowly around Walter as Hank (who traced equipment used to make the meth to Walter's high school chemistry lab) stumbles across Jesse's connection to a local drug kingpin but doesn't quite have the leverage to hold Jesse or get him to flip. As Todd pointed out in an earlier post, it's the blind spot of family that prevents Hank from seeing what's in front of him and also what has made Breaking Bad such an unexpectedly must-watch series.