Meth with the best

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Bryan Cranston won an Emmy last year for his performance as Walter White on Breaking Bad. James Spader and Hugh Laurie were the safe picks, Jon Hamm the sexy one. But Cranston deserved that Best Actor statue for his portrayal of Walter, a pathetic shell of a high school chemistry teacher who, unhinged and emboldened by terminal cancer, begins cooking and selling crystal meth to ensure his family's well being.

Cranston sold his disturbingly real take on Walter from day one, when the series pilot found him roaming the desert in sagging tighty-whities. Although Breaking Bad only had a strike-shortened seven episodes to introduce itself last year, he used that screen time to create one of TV's most fleshed-out characters.

As season two unfolds, the leading man shows no signs of letting up. Whether staring down drug dealers, clumsily concealing his crime spree from his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) or matter-of-factly debating the minutiae of murder with his burnout former student-turned-accomplice, Jesse (Aaron Paul), Cranston crackles. In a TV landscape that's overcrowded with antiheroes, he continues to make Walter's dark, desperate revitalization ring true.

The supporting players are nearly as solid. Paul makes Jesse's constant exasperation as funny as it is pitiful. Gunn is much more compelling than she should be, considering her part mostly consists of sitting around looking worried. Even brother-in-law/DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris) has been evolved into more than just a dimwitted good ol' boy, though his shrill, self-centered wife (Betsy Brandt) would be best kept to a minimum.

To writer-producer Vince Gilligan's credit, Cranston and his cohorts are working with quality stuff. Breaking Bad may not be as stylish as AMC's first hit, Mad Men, but it's every bit as good.

This is as slow and methodical as a show about a dying chemistry teacher should be, and despite occasional glimpses of dark comedy, it's much more gruesome than its whimsical counterpart, Weeds. Yet watching Walter and Jesse deal with the utterly realistic consequences of their decisions is immediately, relentlessly gripping.

"Breaking Bad"

10 p.m. Sundays, AMC

Grade: A