by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Breaking Bad & r & & r & (AMC, Sundays, 10pm) & r & & r & There's something gutsy about Breaking Bad. It isn't the normal-joe-becomes-drug-dealer scenario. Post-Weeds, a character like Brian Cranston's cancer-riddled chemistry teacher Walter White doesn't seem implausible, nor does his decision to cook methamphetamine as a kind of life insurance policy for his family. It isn't the cursing, which is abundant but strangely muted. AMC seems have to green-lighted a show with HBO-level language, only to have balked at the last minute, dubbing out the worst cursing and placing the show easily below FX-type grit. It isn't even the way creator Vince Gilligan has portrayed the meth game, with a caustic naturalism and gore that will surely shock parts of the heartland.
No, the thing that really feels fresh about Breaking Bad is the ratio of these things. The show dedicates about an episode and a half to the back-biting and vagaries of liquefying a body with acid -- what kind of acid to use, what kind of container acid won't melt through, the trouble of finding such a container at the local hardware store. In contrast, the series spends less than 20 minutes poking impressionistically at Walter's financial situation, the thing that leads him ultimately to manufacture perhaps the worst drug ever dreamt up.
During the day, Walter's a teacher who gets little respect. At night, he's a hand-wash cashier who gets even less. At home, his wife treats him like a lovably cold fish. There are no grand soliloquies about Walter's hard luck. Nor does Gilligan stage any maxed-out-credit-card scene to hammer home the fact that the family barely gets by. There's zero sermonizing.
Instead, we get those little clues and are left to piece the plight together. We see the exhaustion in Walter's eyes, the resignation. We see that car wash and we wonder why anyone would subject himself to so much hardscrabble hell. Under what circumstances would we ourselves take a second job at a car wash? We get it. Times must be really tough.
So much drama -- on TV, in theaters and onstage -- foists big, stagy exposition upon the audience, not trusting us to get whatever point's being made. Breaking Bad isn't brilliantly written or shot, and it isn't bitingly original, but it does that one incredibly gutsy thing: It trusts us to get it.
Grab a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, some PBR and unbutton your pants -- it's March Madness time. There's pretty much a game on any time you pick up the clicker between Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon -- and both the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Washington State Cougars are competing. (Wall-to-wall, Thursday-Sunday, 3/20-23, CBS)
HBO has done it again in the historical epic department in this adaptation of David McCullough's biography of our second president. The casting and acting will simply blow you away -- David Morse as George Washington, Tom Wilkinson as Ben Franklin, Danny Huston as Sam Adams and Paul Giamatti as John Adams. It's uncanny. In Part Three (of seven), Adams ships out to Paris to win an ally. The revolution never looked so good. (Sunday, 3/23, 9 pm, HBO)
Like a decadent late-night snack, Bravo's guilty pleasure is back for a fourth season -- this time based in the Windy City. More chefs than ever are talking smack -- which makes it all the more fun when they are told to pack their knives and leave. (Wednesday, 3/26, 10 pm, Bravo)