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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Breaking Bad’ is a transfixing train wreck

Bryan Cranston stars as Walt White, a nice-guy-gone-wrong, in the AMC drama “Breaking Bad.’’ Bryan Cranston stars as Walt White, a nice-guy-gone-wrong, in the AMC drama “Breaking Bad.’’ (Ben Leuner/AMC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 20, 2010

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‘Breaking Bad’’ is that show — the great one that a majority of viewers don’t know about, the one most likely to develop a cult DVD afterlife like “The Wire,’’ the one on the front lines of the battle against forgettable TV. About the transformation of Walt White (Bryan Cranston) from a nebbishy chemistry teacher with lung cancer into a Southwestern drug kingpin, “Breaking Bad’’ has become a transfixing small-screen epic. Season three premieres tomorrow night at 10 on AMC.

Why is a show about a man who secretly cooks crystal meth on AMC? For the same reason “Mad Men’’ is on the channel that has identified itself so closely with big-screen movies: “Breaking Bad’’ is one of the most cinematic TV series I’ve ever seen, a visually sophisticated work in which every shot has been micromanaged, every color has something to say. Set in and around Albuquerque, the show evokes both drab fast-food restaurants and vast, relentlessly sunny desertscapes. It’s a “No Country for Old Men’’-like vision of a place where man and nature are close but at odds. Cinematographer Michael Slovis is absolutely one of the stars of the show.

Also, “Breaking Bad,’’ like “Mad Men’’ and so many big-screen movies, takes its time. The show is masterfully paced, so that each scene moves forward confidently, slowly, deliberately. Whether a set piece is suspenseful — killers waiting for Walt to finish his shower to shoot — or melodramatic, the stride is never hurried. This season, the confrontations between Walt and his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), are particularly fraught as she learns about his secret life, and the show willfully lingers in their complex exchange of feelings, never cutting away to ease the intensity for viewers. Without the relief of fast-editing, we feel the couple’s discomfort in the painful silences as much as we do in the angry eruptions.

The pace also enables the actors to breathe, to really give naturalistic performances. While the concept of the show can be forced — Walt is a dealer, his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is a DEA agent — the tone is realistic. Last season belonged to Aaron Paul, who plays Walt’s young dealer and surrogate son, Jesse, a guy whose struggles with addiction and the fatal overdose of his girlfriend have made him more humane. This season, I suspect, will belong to Gunn, one of the strongest actresses on TV right now. It took her a season to find her character, to make sense of how a woman could so profoundly misunderstand her husband; but now she is consistently spellbinding.

At this point, “Breaking Bad’’ is far from where it started. Initially, it was a dramatic approach to “Weeds,’’ with a nice guy selling drugs to sustain his family. Like “Dexter,’’ we were in the morally prickly position of both admiring Walt and disapproving of his choices. But at this point Walt has gone off the deep end, having directly or indirectly led to many deaths. In last season’s brilliantly developed story line, Walt’s self-preservation led to a plane crash whose debris — including human remains — rained down on his house. Next week, he tells his slime-ball lawyer Saul (Bob Odenkirk), “I can’t be the bad guy,’’ but Saul knows as well as we do that Walt is beyond redemption. The show isn’t a moral quandary anymore so much as the psychodynamic portrait of a man whose self-empowerment has grown lethal.

“Breaking Bad,’’ which, by the way, is also filled with blackly comic twists, has been nominated for a number of Emmys. Cranston has won best actor twice. But still the show exists below the radar for most viewers, and when people ask me to recommend good TV, they never seem to have heard about it. Yup, “Breaking Bad’’ is that series.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

BREAKING BAD Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, Dean Norris

On: AMC

Time: Tomorrow night, 10-11