Now let's get one thing straight; this is a television program NOT for the faint at heart. If you like your viewing saccherine, with easy answers and everything wrapped up and snapped back to the beginning by the end of the episode, Breaking Bad is not for you. The premise alone should be enough to tell you that; a cancer-striken father who is a chemistry teacher turns to illegal drug manufacture with a not-too-bright ex-student and struggles with his own mortality and morality along the way, doing his best to hide the new career choice from his pregnant wife, son with cerebal palsy, medic sister-in-law and law enforcer brother. Yes, this isn't light-weight material by any means.
I'm not a fan of these shows that rely on "inflated sense of tension" to pump up the viewer's adrenaline levels while covering for poor scripting; stuff like 24, Lost and Prison Break started out well-enough but quickly descended into this cheap shock tactic approach to keep the audience hooked. Once I saw through this I stopped watching them completely and have been seeking out quality American shows that are well-produced and equally well-written, and I am happy to say that Breaking Bad is one of these. Not since I saw Firefly (a very different kind of show) have I enjoyed a television program this much.
Bryan Cranston is perfectly cast as Walt, the man who has to make tough choices to provide for his family. He so perfectly becomes the character that it was not until later I realised he was previously cast as Hal in Malcolm In The Middle. His emotional range is staggering; with a few well-timed gestures or vocalisations he can convey several feelings at once, and when Walt is in pain it is completely believable. Walt is a man of few words, but chooses these words very carefully, so when he speaks everyone on-screen and in the audience are listening.
Cranston isn't just carrying passengers though; he's ably supported by Anna Gunn as his wife Skylar, who brings just the right amount of care and concern for her husband and baby as needed and RJ Mitte plays the son who has CP and gives a very accurate, non-condescending portrayal of the condition so different from the ham-handed "sympathy ploy" approach so overused by shows from the States. Dean Norris plays Walt's brother Hank, the all-American police officer who doesn't take any guff and flushes out drug dealers for a living and his quirky kleptomaniac wife Marie (the lightest character in this show, amusingly) is handled with panache by Betsy Brandt. Rounding out the main cast is Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, every inch the nervy, paranoid and streetwise "cook" who becomes Walt's new partner and guide to the world of drug trafficing.
I could say so much about what makes this a compelling piece of film-making - it really does play like an extended movie at many points - but I'd be here for a long time. Tight, well-plotted scripts that make the unbelievable tangeable and don't waste a line while doing so. Superb, inventive direction and settings that perfectly fit the mood of the show, an interesting mixture of steadicam, handicam, point-of-view and via camcorders that appear to be captured by the cast themselves. Excellent choice of soundtrack; almost every episode ends with a classic song and the musical cues throughout really add to the atmosphere without becoming overpowering; witness the searing, high-pitched noises when we see through Walt's eyes as he is in pain or being given bad news for an example.
What is most remarkable is that the show never gives easy answers, never biases us towards the characters (we are given both sides of the debate and left to make our own choices, which respects the viewers intelligence) and always does things that you will not expect. There is not a single cliche to be found here, no way of knowing exactly how each person will react to the situations they are thrust into. These are complex, multi-faceted individuals with free will and their own motivations, who exist not as mere tools to advance the plot. The plot itself is always coherent and leaves very few loose ends. If you see an event or object framed, however subtley, you can bet it will come back later on. Maybe not in the same episode, but as part of the story arc. And last but not least is the incredibly pitch black humour that crops up every now and then, so dark it almost feels uncomfortable to laugh.
Overall this is an assured, professional piece of work that ranges from very good to downright stunning, with "Crazy Handful Of Nothin'" being the standout episode of the first season. If they can carry this program on for two or three more seasons and then end it without dragging past the logical closure point (and with Walt the way he is, this is crucial), it will be one of the greatest drama series of all time.