The best TV series I watched in 2008 was "Breaking Bad."
Better than "Lost," "Mad Men," "Battlestar Galactica," "The Office" or even "The Shield." That's how much I enjoyed the AMC drama, which returns Sunday night at 10 p.m. for its second season.
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For those unacquainted with the series, you can catch up with a marathon of Season 1 tonight beginning at 8 p.m.
But to sum it up, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher who can barely make ends meet, finds out he has terminal cancer. In an effort to provide for the future of his family, including his wife, handicapped son and unborn baby, he creates crystal meth to sell on the streets. Walter enlists the aid of a former dropout Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to hook him up with street connections to sell the product.
Much like "The Shield" or "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad" centers around a protagonist that the audience finds itself rooting for despite his criminal enterprises. Unlike Vic Mackey or Tony Soprano, however, Walt takes no pleasure in his criminal acts and only does them out of necessity.
Or does he? Part of the appeal of "Bad" is its contrasts it presents weekly that are downright existential. Walt transforms from a meek, struggling man to an assertive and forceful one as he gets deeper into the drug culture. He becomes more alive as he gets closer to death. He becomes more successful and freer the more he breaks the law. By not playing by society's rules, Walt becomes a better provider for his family.
One of the most fun aspects of "Bad" is Walt's interesting applications of chemistry. A genius who turned his back on a lucrative career in the private sector to teach bored high school students for a pittance, Walt uses his skills to create the best crystal meth ever, so much so, even the drug dealers and the DEA are impressed by its purity.
And Walt doesn't take a knife to a gunfight -- he takes a bag of chemicals, with explosive results. Plus, viewers can learn which acids should be used to dispose of a dead body, something Jesse learned the hard way in Season 1.
Paul does an excellent job in making the stoner Jesse more than just a Spiccoli-like caricature, and Anna Gunn is perfectly understated as Walt's wife.
But the real joy here is Cranston, who turns in the performance of his career as Walt. It's a marvel of an acting job, and his Emmy was both the most pleasant surprise and the most deserved in this year's show. Walt isn't a character who makes his presence known the moment he enters a room -- this isn't Dr. House swaggering in and insulting his patients, or Tony Soprano sitting down with a rival mob boss, or even Don Draper charming a beautiful woman. Cranston is brilliantly subtle as a man so ordinary that you hardly notice him. But with Walt becoming more self-confident each day, the transformation Cranston gives the character is remarkable.
Walt's strut leaving the drug dealer's pad, taking down these punks who tried to rip him off using only his brains as his weapon even as he displays the effects of chemotherapy was one of the most indelible endings of a season on TV last year.
Vince Gilligan ("The X-Files") created one of TV's most clever series last year, and I can't wait to see what he has in store for Walt and Jesse in Season 2.
'BACHELOR' FALLOUT: The most talke about topic on TV this week was the fallout from "The Bachelor" Monday night, in which Jason broke up with first-choice Melissa in favor of runner-up Molly. Viewers were outraged that such a break-up occured on TV.
Turns out, it didn't. Melissa acknowledged on "The Ellen Degeneres Show" that she and Jason had been broken up already, so much of what transpired on Monday was staged.
I'm not a big fan of so-called reality shows in the first place, but that seems especially manipulative on the series' part. One wonders if this will come back to haunt ABC when "The Bachelorette" soon begins.
WEEKEND'S BEST BETS: My jubilation over the return of "Breaking Bad" is tempered by the fact that this is the third-to-last "Battlestar Galactica" (Sci Fi, 10 p.m.) tonight. The series has struggled a bit in the storytelling the last few episodes, but I chalk that up to the producers setting the stage for the finale.
It turns out the low ratings for "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" (Fox, 8 p.m.) and "Dollhouse" (Fox, 9 p.m.) aren't quite as dire as they should be -- both programs are among the most time-shifted on TV, meaning people are recording them and watching them at another time. It could help the survival of both shows.
CBS is all-new with "Ghost Whisperer," "Flashpoint" and "Numb3rs." Meanwhile, the character of Jason Street departs Dillon on "Friday Night Lights" (NBC, 9 p.m.)
On Saturday, as I noted yesterday, the spinoff to "Life On Mars," "Ashes To Ashes," makes its debut on BBC America at 9 p.m.
On Sunday, Seth Rogen guest stars as himself on "Family Guy" (Fox, 9 p.m.), anchoring a new night of Fox animation. CBS is all new with "The Amazing Race" at 8 p.m., followed by "Cold Case" and "The Unit."
ABC has new episodes of "Desperate Housewives" at 9 p.m. and "Brothers & Sisters" at 10 p.m., which follows last week's two-hour non-death event.
NBC inflicts two more hours of "Celebrity Apprentice" upon us at 9 p.m.
On cable, the season for "Big Love" (HBO, 9 p.m.) winds down, as does "The United States of Tara" (Showtime, 10 p.m.) Meanwhile, "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" (SHO, 10:30 p.m.) wraps up Season 2, while "The L Word" (SHO, 9 p.m.) has its series finale with guest star Lucy Lawless, whom I'm guessing won't be a Cylon.