Malcolm in the Middle finished its glorious run about a year and a half ago. Since then I’ve been very worried about one character in particular. Not any of the kids, not Frankie Muniz (Agent Cody Banks 9?), not even the indomitable Lois, who seems to have found her feet on some show or other (that haven’t caught yet). No, the character – the actor – who held my utmost concern was Hal. Hal the child-in-a-man’s-body. Hal the mildly crazy. Hal the fanatic and fantastical dreamer; who was always going into Stage 2 of his current obsessions with the kind of fervour most of us haven’t felt since we were 9.
And what was going to happen to him after Malcolm made him homeless? He’d already expressed a great gratitude for this opportunity that the show had presented. He WAS the son of Christopher Lloyd, to all intents and puposes – we believed in him thoroughly from his hang-dog face to the pockets of his useless beige ‘Hal Jacket’ – which neither kept him warm nor looked remotely pleasant to wear. He summed up all the broken chances in life. He epitomised all the potential that surely lurks beneath our sorry existence, if only we’d throw open our obsessive streak long enough to let it out. And just like us, Hal got bored and changed his ideas before it could fully express itself. Or, even more frequently, one of the products of his over-productive loins would stuff the idea altogether.
The actor playing Hal pulled this fantastic together with subtlety and just the right amount of middle-class crazy. As I said, after Malcolm ended, I was suddenly aware that he might be bereft, out in the cold, without paycheck or hideous coat to put over his shoulders. I wondered what might just be his next calling, or if he’d ever find anything to show off his talents with quite so much variety and interest. Surely, he was going to get a bit-part on Heroes and that would be it forever?
Well, I was very happy to see this great actor appear in Little Miss Sunshine, playing against type as a smarmy executive-type in a nice jacket! Then, about 6 months later, I gradually became aware of a new show getting advertised on the FX channel on our Sky box.
I had to see the ad fairly frequently, inbetween episodes of Season 5 Wire, and then only when we missed a split second forwarding frantically through the inexplicably LOUD ads. But gradually it sank in. THAT was Hal! Hal had returned!
Or rather, Bryan Cranston. To me he will always, always, be Hal from Malcolm. But Bryan has popped up in what must be one of the most interesting new shows around. Similar to Weeds, I guess, although I haven’t seen that show. Anyway, Breaking Bad promises to be the ultimate ‘one to watch’. (And he won an Emmy!!!!!)
In Breaking Bad, Cranston plays grade school Chemistry teacher Walter White. During the slick, indirect timeline of the first few episodes, we learn that he has a beautiful (and smart) wife, a partially disabled son and a new baby on the way – and that he’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His family are so hardup that he’s working part time at a desk at a crappy car wash – where the boss keeps making him go out to clean the cars too. Walter seems gutless and just as beige as the jacket that he appears to have 86’d from the Malcolm set, to set up THIS character. (ah, who cares, it works…
So he goes to chemo and does as he’s told, right? Wouldn’t you??
However, this is TV Land. In TV Land, characters with HIS sort of news wake up and do something unexpected and decisive about their lives – and Walter White sure as heck doesn’t disappoint. The way it’s handled, however, is nothing short of divine and soon you’ll start to care a heck of a lot about Walter, his family, and the former-student-cum-drug dealer with whom Walter strikes up an unlikely plan.
Yes, Walter is going to show the scary druggy underbelly of New Mexico how you REALLY cook up some high-quality meth. He has leet chemistry skills, and frankly it’s about time he put them to good use. The joy of the show is in taking us through the minute practicalities of deciding to do this – particularly when it turns out that COOKING the meth is the easiest part of the business. The show handles this in a smart, level-headed way, playing it straight whilst allowing the newly alive Walter to hit out at things that we’d all like to do, were we also dying of cancer and wishing for a way to support our beloved families. This keeps things flying along, but there’s also a real, grounded thoughtfulness that gives it a satisfyingly adult flavour.
Breaking Bad also makes great use of its New Mexico location, always suggesting something just nudging towards the spiritual, whilst Walter deals scientifically and logically (sort of) with his mortality. The look it achieves is warm and distinctive, seriously making me consider my holiday plans for next year!
And let’s not let the supporting cast go unsung. First praise has to go to former Deadwood (wife of Seth Bullock!) Anna Gunn, as Walt’s pregnant wife, Skylar. She mostly manages to doge the ‘judgemental wife’ trap – or alternatively the ‘loony woman’ one – which is often just waiting for women in TV Land. Instead she’s a very believable partner for reliable Walter, forming a supportive unit of his family. RJ Mitte is also very impressive as Walter White Jnr, who has cerebal palsey. He’s a refreshing million miles from the boring angst-ridden teens that are sprayed over popular drama. He tries to buy beer underage, of course, but the angst is slop-free.
Best of all is Walt’s reluctant business partner, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). At first a no-hope drop-out with half-assed connections in New Mexico’s underground, he remains on the seedy side of things even as Walt’s influence starts to make him – not a BETTER person – but certainly a slightly smarter one. Sort of. Slowly.
Always surprising and gratifyingly smart, Breaking Bad comes highly recommended. Just like good ol’ Walt, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Frankly the VERY GOOD news is that it’s coming back for a 2nd series in March 2009 (thank you Wikipedia). The BAD news? There are only 7 instalments of season 1 (no thanks to the writer’s strike). However, not a single one is wasted!
The 2nd Season has a lot to live up to, but I wouldn’t worry. Like cooking a perfect baggie of clear crystal, the best things come to those with a little more patience. And Breaking Bad is probably just as addictive. Maybe. It’s good is all I’m saying.
Meth is Bad, M’kay? I know these things, I’ve seen the Wire…!