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Malcolm's dad in the middle
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Bryan Cranston goes from comic father in "Malcolm in the Middle" to desperate dad in "Breaking Bad."

 

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Published: 1/18/2008 12:20 AM

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Sorry, but it's no longer "Malcolm in the Middle." It's Malcolm's dad who's stuck in the middle -- of a major dilemma.

And it's not being played for laughs this time.

Bryan Cranston finds himself not in a midlife crisis, but in an end-of-life crisis in what should be the middle of his life in "Breaking Bad," a new AMC drama debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday.

Cranston plays Walt White, an unassuming high-school chemistry teacher. He has a pregnant wife and a teenage son with cerebral palsy, and he works an extra job at a car wash to make ends meet -- or not, as the case may be from month to month. He only seems animated when he's playing Mr. Wizard for his students, but even then he's rewarded with surliness and apathy.

He leads a life of quiet desperation -- and that's before he's diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

No wonder he opens a mobile meth lab in a Winnebago.

It's not quite that straightforward or streamlined, but that's the basic story of "Breaking Bad," AMC's attempt to build on its success in original programming after "Mad Men" was such a hit last summer.

It benefits from a fine performance by Cranston, who takes the tics he used for comic effect in "Malcolm" and adapts them to drama instead. At the same time, he's totally comfortable dropping trou -- ridiculous as he might look with only an apron to cover up his not-so-tighty whiteys -- simply because he's not going home with clothes reeking of illicit chemicals.

Not with his annoying, cocksure, drug-cop brother-in-law hanging around.

The key to it all, of course, is execution, and in that the show benefits from creator Vince Gilligan, formerly of "The X-Files," who writes and directs Sunday's pilot.

It starts out right away with a little razzle-dazzle, as Walt crashes the Winnebago, which just happens to have a couple dead bodies as cargo, in the desert. He emerges to film a quick farewell to his family on a camcorder, then pulls a gun, steps into the road and prepares for the cops to arrive as the sirens come closer.

Then it flashes back to how Walt got into such a predicament. Again, he has a pregnant wife, Skyler, played by Anna Gunn, who insists on feeding him veggie bacon and attempts to please him with one hand in his lap and the other on a laptop to monitor an eBay auction.

Walt's 50th-birthday surprise party is just another opportunity for Dean Norris' Drug Enforcement Agency brother-in-law Hank to show him up, except that Walt's ears perk up when he hears they've just made a $700,000 bust of a crystal-meth lab.

After collapsing at work, he is hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer. Returning home, he's asked how his day was. "Oh, you know, fine," Walt says, but his mind is already elsewhere.

Invited to go along on Hank's next bust, Walt gets left outside -- and sees an old student, Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman, escape. Walt eventually tracks him down, but not to arrest him. To make him a proposition.

"You know the business, and I know the chemistry," he says. "Either that or I turn you in."

Jesse has been running a slapdash operation -- even putting cayenne pepper in the product as his signature. Walt cleans it up and makes it more efficient and, although they initially clash, the improved product sells itself.

"You're a (darn) artist," Jesse says. "This is art, Mr. White."

"Actually, it's just chemistry," he replies.

All the while, of course, a viewer knows things are headed for disaster in the desert. I'm not going to reveal how Walt gets there -- or how he gets himself out of it. "Breaking Bad" is a series, and no it's not a legal drama about Walt defending himself in court. He's only just beginning to meth around and appears to have plenty of batches ahead of him, if he can just stay ahead of that bulldog brother-in-law.

In that, "Bad" is reminiscent of Showtime's "Weeds," the series about a drug-dealing suburban mom played by Mary Louise Parker. Yet where "Weeds" is more of a comic satire, "Bad" tries to keep at least one foot in reality. It has plot holes you can drive that Winnebago through, and its sense of ethics borders on the nihilistic -- this is meth, not marijuana, we're talking about, and if impending death is Walt's motivation, well, there's only a difference in degrees between his mortality and anyone else's -- but Cranston's almost tangible desperation keeps it rooted. This isn't quite as stylishly seductive as "Mad Men," but it feels a lot more realistic.

So count me in, at least for now, on "Breaking Bad." And if I believe I'm immune to the show's addictive properties, isn't that what every methed-up individual says to start?

Remotely interesting: Antonio Mora is out at WBBM Channel 2. He'll become the lead anchor at WFOR-TV, the CBS affiliate in Miami, on Jan. 28. Mora was nothing but a class act since coming to Channel 2 from ABC's "Good Morning America" in 2002, but was demoted from the 10 p.m. newscast last June in favor of Rob Johnson.

Kathy Brock will be the moderator and Daily Herald political editor David Beery will be one of the questioning panelists when the Democratic candidates for Cook County state's attorney debate at 4 p.m. Sunday on WLS Channel 7. The debate was actually taped Wednesday.

The Sundance Channel begins a week of daily updates from the Sundance Film Festival at 8 p.m. today. … Don't forget that Turner Classic Movies marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a Charles Burnett film fest starting with "Killer of Sheep" at 7 p.m. Monday. … WTTW Channel 11 airs the Sargent Shriver profile "American Idealist" at 9 p.m. Monday.

End of the dial: WGN 720-AM's Spike O'Dell led in the morning, WNUA 95.5-FM's Rick O'Dell won midday and WGCI 107.5-FM's Tony Sculfield

took afternoon drive in fall Arbitron ratings.

Thanks in large part to the Bears, WBBM 780-AM unseated WGN-AM as Chicago's top-billing station last year, according to the accounting firm of Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co. 'BBM-AM grossed $47.5 million in ad revenue, WGN-AM $43.5 million. WTMX 101.9-FM, 'GCI-FM and WUSN 99.5-FM filled out the top five.

Waste Watcher's choice

"The Wolf Man" remains one of the most elegant of the classic horror movies. Lon Chaney Jr. is Larry Talbot, the title character, but Maria Ouspenskaya steals the show as the gypsy woman who recites screenwriter Curt Siodmak's classic lines: "The way you walk is thorny, through no fault of your own. For as the rain enters the soil and the river enters the sea, so tears run to their predestined end." Son of Svengoolie plays host to a screening at 9 p.m. Saturday on WCIU Channel 26.