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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Seriously, how amazing is "Breaking Bad?"

I'm not the kind of guy who likes to dabble in hyperbole. But I'm just going to come right out and say it: "Breaking Bad" is starting to creep up on "The Wire" in my all-time TV canon.

That's an obscene amount of praise coming from me, and perhaps I'll read it will a degree of embarrassment if the show's lingering Season 2 question -- what is up with that one-eyed stuffed animal floating in a swimming pool? -- crashes with a thud.

But I don't see that happening. Not after this show has delivered one gripping payoff after another. Not after Sunday's latest masterpiece.

If you felt the need to disregard the last time I wrote about "Bad," well, I don't suppose there's much more I can do short of praising the show while pointing a gun in your face and wearing nothing but my underwear. Hey, that's how Walt White has been known to roll ...

Anyway, here's a quick plot refresher for the uninitiated: Humble chemistry teacher Walt -- played by the you'll-see-him-in-a-whole-new-light Bryan Cranston -- is dying of lung cancer. In order to pay mounting hospital bills and not saddle his pregnant wife and disabled son with debt, he decides to use his scientific know-how to cook the most pristine crystal meth on the planet. With the help of Jesse, a dim-witted former student, the two become embroiled in one dangerous mishap after another before making a deal with the devil himself --Tuco, a ruthless Mexican drug lord who makes Tony Soprano look like Elmo.

Season 1 ends on a particularly bone-chilling note in an abandoned junkyard ... leading to Season 2's surreal kidnapping adventure and the emotional ramifications of Walt's disappearance (i.e. continued selfishness/disregard for his family's fragile emotional state.)

And therein lies the dark beauty of "Breaking Bad." By trying to provide for his family in the most irresponsible way possible, Walt is alienating the very people he's trying to protect. Yet the situation is hardly black and white. Because of his plight and lowly lot in life, "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" Walt earns tremendous sympathy from the viewer. We've all been in his shoes. We just can't make top dollar meth to help soothe the savage beast inside our sick heads.

There are several other moral quandaries that guide the show, but Season 2 has been especially rich because Walt no longer has to carry every scene and conversation (Cranston is such a revelation in Season 1, everything else just seems to fade away). In particular, a plot involving Walt's brother-in-law Hank, a tough-as-nails DEA agent, is becoming more emotionally arresting with each passing episode. (Sorry, no spoilers.)

Which begs a pressing question for the extended clan: who is going to crack first? Exploring these added dimensions is giving "Bad" a level of nuance and depth that, at least to me, has become far more poignant and relatable than "The Sopranos" ever dared to be (and I loved "The Sopranos"). And while the social conscience of "Bad" will never reach "The Wire," in terms of pacing and storytelling, it's on the cusp of all-time greatness.

Case in point: a series of simple scenes from Sunday's episode ("Breakage") that showed Jesse's new dealers slinging meth across the city. The effortless, no dialogue movement from location to location, in particular the lit up backdrop of an aquarium dealer, was reminiscent of a Season 2 "Wire" montage that connected Baltimore's underground while set to Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." Seriously, it brought a tear to my eye. Inject a few Lynchian splashes of spine-tingling creepiness -- Sunday's menacing cackle by a junkie-turned-robber was as wonderfully demented as the crazy dumpster scene in "Mulholland Drive" -- and you have a show that delivers across the board.

Even better for fans, "Bad" has already been renewed for a third season. On the heels of a Peabody Award and an Emmy for Cranston, "Bad's" second season is reportedly up in viewership and critical acclaim keeps rolling in.

Of course, as the show forges ahead with full support from AMC, there's the elephant in the room. At what point will Walt's cancer force the show to confront his death in a realistic capacity? Or as Walt slowly moves closer to the edge -- the drug kingpin tease finally arrived Sunday -- will the death-by-cancer guillotine even be an issue?

But let's save those questions for another day and put our trust in creator Vince Gilligan. He hasn't been wrong yet, and the result has been the best show on television -- no hyperbole.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski, trozwado@greenbaypressgazette.com

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