The liberating power of a fatal diagnosis underlies the movie “The Bucket List” and, to a less ostentatious degree, this AMC series — offering a breakout role to Bryan Cranston, while not quite reaching the lofty heights the channel scaled with the brilliant period drama “Mad Men.” Series creator Vince Gilligan brings a quirky sensibility to the pilot, and the show grows increasingly rich and absorbing in the second and third hours. Whether “Breaking Bad” can ignite to become more than TV’s version of a little-seen indie film, however, could be an elusive formula.
A gutsy bit of casting after his broadly comic (and frequently hilarious) work on “Malcolm in the Middle,” Cranston plays Walt White, a chemistry teacher who moonlights at the local car wash. A painfully ordinary guy, he has a semi-detached wife (Anna Gunn, last seen in “Deadwood”) who taps away on the computer during what passes for sex between them, and a physically challenged son (RJ Mitte) who endures teasing from other kids.
Full of inner turmoil, Walt’s worldview shifts when the hacking cough that won’t go away turns out to be much worse than a persistent cold. Suddenly faced with mortality, his clenched demeanor begins changing — highlighted by Walt’s decision to cook crystal meth in conjunction with a former student, Jesse (Aaron Paul), introducing him to an assortment of unsavory characters.
It’s a brave, balls-to-the-wall performance by Cranston — almost literally, given the indelible image of him baking the drugs in his tight-white briefs, not wanting to leave the lingering chemical smell on his everyday clothes.
Three episodes in — pursuing a story arc that evolves impressively and incorporates an engrossing moral dilemma — “Breaking Bad” consistently keeps the audience off balance, oscillating between life-or-death scenarios and dark comedy fueled by Jesse’s limited grasp of chemistry. The aptly named Walt, meanwhile, emerges as a modern-day Walter Mitty — a portrait of middle-aged angst and repression, albeit here emboldened by the dawning realization he has little left to lose.
Yet as polished as “Breaking Bad” is, in terms of long-term potential (or however long Walt has), it’s the sort of front-loaded affair that invites skepticism as to whether the idiosyncratic tone can be maintained. The original order is for seven episodes, and in some respects the project might work best as a limited series — especially if the plot turns on Walt’s adventures in drug dealing, which risks coming across less as one man’s existential crisis than a genre-twisting companion to “Weeds.” (Although the content doesn’t extend quite into that show’s pay cable neighborhood, AMC pushes close to FX standards with its liberal allowances of language and drug use.)
Granted, these reservations are partly a tribute to “Breaking Bad’s” ambition, and at the least it’s a worthy addition to the recent bar-raising run by cable dramas — of which “Mad Men” marked a surprising standard-bearer, establishing AMC as a credible option.
For all that, it’s difficult to count this series as an unqualified breakthrough just yet. Then again, as Walt can testify about dealing with volatile ingredients, sometimes the gutsiest strategy is simply to toss them together and see what happens.