It's a story as old as time itself. Walter White, a struggling high-school chemistry teacher with a pregnant wife and disabled son, is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and due to a lack of health insurance turns to producing and selling methamphetamine in order to provide for his family’s future. But that’s only really the jumping off point for the series – while the initial interest comes from seeing Walter fall into a world of manufacturing narcotics after a chance encounter with a former pupil, the main appeal of the programme is in seeing how he juggles his new life and his disease, first by hiding everything from his family, finally opening up to them about his condition, his personality along the way flitting from pitiful, to resilient, to Machiavellian, to just plain old nasty, as circumstance dictates.
While this might seem to be a slightly flimsy premise for a multi-season US drama series, the story is paced expertly, taking in the everyday aspects of Walter’s life along with the more explosive events, all the while never letting the viewer feel bored. Bryan “Tim Whatley/Hal Nolastname” Cranston put in a truly captivating performance as Walter, a man wracked with regrets over Not Doing Enough over the preceding fifty years of his life, over what he’s led himself into, into what he’s failed to do for his family, so much so that Cranston has picked up Best Actor Emmys for his performances in each of the two seasons so far. His supporting cast members also put in magnificent turns, with Aaron Paul as Walt’s stoner sidekick Jesse, Anna Gunn as his increasingly suspicious wife Skyler, RJ Mitte as Walt’s cerebral palsy-inflicted son Walt Jr, and Dean Norris as Walt’s brother-in-law, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who struggles at times to cope with the stresses of his own situation.
While the first season proves engrossing enough to flash by (a situation heightened by the WGA strike keeping it to a tight seven episodes), the second season is where Breaking Bad really comes alive, with Walt and Jesse having to live up to the situation they’ve created for themselves, both on and off the streets. By the halfway point of the second season, you come to the realisation that even without one of the two central twists to the programme, you would still be watching one of the best drama shows currently on air, whether it was solely concerned with the pressures of an uninsured lower-middle class American family having to deal with the sole wage-earner fighting cancer, or about two woefully unprepared white guys unwittingly in charge of a burgeoning drug operation. With both factors battling it out for screen-time, coupled with some simply marvellous direction and cinematography (really, a lot of the more violent scenes are presented every bit as beautifully as The Sopranos did at its finest), this really is one of the finest dramas to hit television in the past twenty years.
Breaking Bad really, really deserves to be seen by more people in the UK, although sadly that doesn’t seem likely any time soon, with the show restricted to airing on FX and Five USA only. Here’s hoping that, with a five-ounce bag of luck, the show will eventually appear on Five proper (or better yet, BBC Two), but until then, you can pick up the first season on DVD for under £16.