For the last decade, anti-heroes have been de rigeur in television series up and down the dial. From Tony Soprano, Sean McNamara, Christian Troy and Vic Mackey to Dexter Morgan, Dr. Gregory House, Kenny Powers and Andy Millman, the post-modern TV landscape is littered with men thwarted by whatever circumstance and determined to change that. Add to the list a most unlikely candidate: Mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White, the protagonist of the gleefully twisted, fleetingly sophisticated and altogether addictive Breaking Bad. As played by Bryan Cranston (who won an Emmy for his work here), Walter is a surprising anti-hero, in that he evokes far more sympathy than he does antipathy.
Created by Vince Gilligan ("The X-Files," Hancock), Breaking Bad owes as much to the oeuvre of David Lynch as it does to grungy, law-skirting antecedents like "The Sopranos" or "The Shield." Gilligan and his creative team seem fascinated with the peculiarities of suburbia, applying a patina of surrealism to an otherwise fairly straightforward narrative, set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The desert helps provide that extra edge of weirdness; some of the series' loveliest moments are simply panoramic shots of the arid expanses, unfouled by man, which often devolve into grisly or forlorn tableaux.
But back to the story at hand: Walter White just turned 50 and got an ugly present: A diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer. Understandably brought low by this news, Walter immediately decides he must, somehow, provide for his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, "Deadwood"), who is unexpectedly pregnant with the couple's second child and Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), a student with mild cerebral palsy at the high school where Walter teaches. The solution to Walter's problems? Making and selling primo crystal meth, with help from Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), an ex-student of his.
The incongruity of a mostly meek, white-bread suburban husband and father dipping his toe into the morally murky world of drug dealing is, of course, Breaking Bad's big hook. That oddity also provides Cranston an opportunity to stretch himself as an actor; it's downright startling to see the dad from "Malcolm in the Middle" screwing, swearing and slinging drugs, but Cranston is a powerhouse from the opening moments of the pilot, standing with a gun aimed at oncoming sirens to the final minutes of the season-ending "A No Rough-Stuff-Type Deal," as his transformation into a rising drug kingpin continues. It's a marvelous, deeply felt performance that ranks among the best on television and provides the viewer a jumping-off point for this often uneven show.
While the main story -- Walter using simple chemistry to produce mind-blowing meth for sale, thereby helping secure his family's financial future -- is plenty compelling, the subplots are often a bit thin, particularly the one enormous contrivance that Walter's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) just so happens to be a DEA agent. The rest of the cast -- Gunn, Mitte, Norris and Betsy Brandt, who plays the role of Marie, Skyler's sister and Hank's wife -- is superb, but are often given too little to do, which can make some sequences feel like killing time until we're back with Walter.
This being a post-"Sopranos" TV drama, Breaking Bad pulls few punches when it comes to sex and violence. Gilligan wastes little time setting up the first big test for Walter, when he and Jesse must deal with the aftermath of a drug deal gone awry. The graphic image of a mostly decomposed body sloughing through a ceiling won't soon erase itself from my mind; there are gag-inducing moments such as this sprinkled throughout the show and I'm sure the second season, which premieres March 8, will only turn up the volume.
As the first season of Breaking Bad concludes (originally meant to have nine episodes, the writers' strike cut that number to seven), Walter and Jesse are coming into their own, having struck a tentative distribution deal with the savagely unpredictable Tuco (Raymond Cruz). With such a short season, Gilligan and company feel as though they're just warming up by the time things come to an end. But what is here is promising, and it bodes well for the longer second installment. Walter White may be an anti-hero, but underneath all the dangerous, illegal activity, beats the heart of a man convinced he's taking risks for the right reasons.
Presented as originally broadcast on AMC, Breaking Bad's first season arrives on DVD in an excellent 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Much of the series relies upon hand-held cinematography, which is often problematic for DVD transfers, but aside from a few instances of smearing and jagged edges, these seven episodes look crisp, vivid and detailed, befitting a recently created production.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doesn't get many opportunities to shine in the early going, but as the series progresses, there are a few moments where the surrounds get to kick in and show off. Gilligan and company use sound to fantastic effect to underscore key narrative moments, particularly in the final three episodes of the first season. It's a warm, immersive mix that doesn't allow the occasional use of incidental music to squash dialogue. Frustratingly, no optional English subtitles are provided, but there are optional French, Spanish and Portuguese subs.
With only seven episodes, the supplements are, understandably, a bit light. Nevertheless, what's included is certainly worth sifting through for fans of the show. Spread across three discs, the first season of Breaking Bad is housed in slimline plastic cases which are tucked into a cardboard sleeve. Each case has brief episode synopses and production credits for all seven episodes. Also, in a nice touch, episodes are playable with or without "previously on" recap sequences.
On the first disc, writer/director Gilligan, actors Cranston, Gunn, Paul, Norris, Brandt, Mitte and editor Lynne Willingham contribute a loose, engaging commentary track for the pilot episode and a trio of deleted scenes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are playable separately or all together for an aggregate of seven minutes. On the second disc, Gilligan, Cranston, Gunn, Paul, Norris and writer George Mastras contribute a yack-track for the penultimate episode, "Crazy Handful of Nothin'" with a pair of deleted scenes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are playable separately or all together for an aggregate of two minutes, 30 seconds.
The third and final disc contains the bulk of the bonus features, leading off with a pair of deleted scenes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) playable separately or together for an aggregate of two minutes, 28 seconds. "Inside Breaking Bad," a 32 minute, 41 second collection of brief, behind-the-scenes vignettes (presented in fullscreen) covers a range of topics, from the series' creation to actor RJ Mitte's real-life cerebral palsy. The 11 minute featurette "Making of Breaking Bad" is standard issue EPK stuff, which appears to have aired on AMC at some point during the first season. A 16 minute, 34 second segment of the AMC series "Shootout" with Peter Bart and Peter Guber features executive producer Mark Johnson, Gilligan and Cranston talking about Breaking Bad. Screen test footage for Paul, Gunn, Brandt and Norris is included, as is a one minute, three second fullscreen trailer for the second season (which uses copious footage from the first season) and Gilligan's photo gallery rounds out the set.
Mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White, the protagonist of the gleefully twisted, fleetingly sophisticated and altogether addictive Breaking Bad. As played by Bryan Cranston (who won an Emmy for his work here), Walter is a surprising anti-hero, in that he evokes far more sympathy than he does antipathy. Created by Vince Gilligan ("The X-Files," Hancock), Breaking Bad owes as much to the oeuvre of David Lynch as it does to grungy, law-skirting antecedents like "The Sopranos" or "The Shield." Gilligan and his creative team seem fascinated with the peculiarities of suburbia, applying a patina of surrealism to an otherwise fairly straightforward narrative, set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With such a short season (only seven episodes, thanks to the writers' strike), Gilligan and company feel as though they're just warming up by the time things come to an end. But what is here is promising, and it bodes well for the longer second installment. Recommended.