'Breaking Bad': TV's Best Show Returns

I've often said that AMC's "Mad Men" is the best show on TV but only the second-best show on the network.

The network's other great hour of TV, "Breaking Bad," kicks off its third season Sunday night at 10 p.m.

"Breaking Bad" falls the trials and tribulations of Walter White (Emmy winner Bryan Cranston), an ordinary chemistry teacher with mounting debts, a pregnant wife, a son with CP, and the knowledge that he has terminal lung cancer. Walt's so unlucky that he developed cancer without ever even smoking.

Walt decides he needs to provide for his family and gets into the manufacturing of crystal meth. His knowledge of chemistry is unrivaled -- the meth he creates is the best ever to reach the streets. But Walt has no knowledge of the underside of life, and turns to a former student named Jesse (Aaron Paul, an Emmy nominee), who has the street-wise knowledge and contacts they need to get their business running.

As the series has progressed, we've seen Walt -- the world's most average, ordinary family man -- slowly descend into the criminal world of drug dealers, becoming a target of both rival criminals and the DEA, for which his brother-in-law works.

As we pick up Season 3, Walt is gaining power and money in the drug trade, but at a terrible cost. He's alienating his family, his lies are catching up with him and he inadvertantly leads Jesse to think he's responsible for the death of his girlfriend Jane through an overdose. (Another side effect: Jane's distraught father, an air traffic controller, screws up and let's a plane crash.)

Season 3 opens with Jesse in rehab and Walt doing something once considered unthinkable -- fessing up to his wife about the drugs.

TV has had some great "gray" characters in the past -- Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Tommy Gavin -- but none are quite like Walt. He's the protagonist of the piece, but certainly not the hero. Nor is he the villain.

Despite his simple, normal life, his situation is incredibly complicated. He's spent his entire life playing by society's rules, only to get kicked in the guts repeatedly. Now, facing death and with seemingly nothing to lose, Walt breaks the rules at first for the noblest of intentions -- to take care of his family after his death.

But you know what they say about the road to hell. Walt has alienated his son and his wife barely speaks to him. He knows he's screwed up Jesse's life and he sees the effect his drugs are having on the streets. Walt has fallen so far that he misses his daughter's birth because he is desperately trying to complete a major drug deal.

In the hands of a less-capable actor, the layers to Walt's character might not make it to the screen. But Cranston has been extraordinary in his performance, a master of subtlety.

Paul has provided the perfect foil for Cranston, coming into his own in Season 2. Jesse could come across as a two-dimensional goofball, but Paul has given the character tremendous depth.

If you have heard about this series and missed the first couple of seasons, fear not. AMC is running a marathon of the first two seasons beginning tonight at 8 p.m. (You can also catch the episodes online). And even if you have watched them, it's probably worth it to refresh your memory.

R.I.P. FESS PARKER: TV's Davy Crockett was 85. Parker died in his home of natural causes. He was best known as Crockett on Disney's late 1950s TV series, but also played Daniel Boone.

WEEKEND'S BEST BETS: With the NCAA basketball tournament in full swing, there's not a whole lot of network fare.

ABC provides the ultimate counter to the basketball with the new figure skating reality series "Thin Ice," in which 10 skaters compete for a grand prize.

On cable, there's a new "Caprica" (SyFy, 9 p.m.) and "Spartacus" (Starz, 10 p.m.)

On Saturday, "Survivors" (BBC America, 9 p.m.) is brand-new.

On Sunday, Fox's animation block returns with new episodes, followed by "Sons of Tucson" at 9:30 p.m.

CBS has a new "Amazing Race," "Undercover Boss" and "Cold Case," while "Desperate Housewives," with guest star John Barrowman ("Torchwood")  and "Brothers & Sisters" are new on ABC, beginning at 9 p.m.

On cable, HBO airs the second episode of "The Pacific" at 9 p.m.

Finally, both TLC and Discovery are airing the new BBC documentary "Life," beginning at 8 p.m. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, it's by the same people who created the terrific documentary series "Planet Earth."