While a TV series about the ups and downs of the meth-dealing business might not seem like the best on-screen exposure for New Mexico, AMC’s new series “Breaking Bad” manages to be, arguably, the most true-to-life version of our fair state to date.
Shot right here in Albuquerque last fall, the eight-episode show introduces us to high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, fully exploiting the unhinged suburban edge he occasionally lent to “Malcolm in the Middle”). Poor Walter gets little respect from his students. His pregnant wife and disabled son seem to love (though not necessarily respect) him. Walter’s meager salary doesn’t make him the world’s best provider. When not at school, he’s working at a lowly car wash just trying to make ends meet.
Walter, it seems, is in the market for a major midlife crisis. He finds the catalyst for just that when he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Unable to get any more depressed, Walter bounces off rock bottom and comes up with a desperate scheme to become a crystal meth dealer in order to provide for his family. He’s already got the chemistry skills. Hooking up with a former delinquent student of his and building a mobile drug lab in a battered Winnebago, Walter starts cooking up some of the finest speed the Southwest has ever seen.
Though it sounds like a grim premise for a show, “Breaking Bad” coats its subject with a pitch-black layer of humor. Bespectacled, badly mustached Walter mixing with hardcore gangstas is a sight to behold. Pushing the show’s milquetoast hero into increasingly more desperate situations results in a certain volatile chemistry--you never know what’s going to explode here or what the results are going to be. Hilarious or heartbreaking: “Breaking Bad” could go either way at any moment.
Though it shares a few minor similarities with Showtime’s suburban drug-dealing comedy “Weeds,” “Breaking Bad” is far more weighted toward the thoughtful, dramatic side of things and spends a lot more time on character. The show is all about Walter and his poorly thought-out plan for financial independence. No matter how it turns out, he’s doomed. And yet, ironically, there are hints that Walter’s criminal activities are making him feel more alive than he has ever felt before.
It’s nice to see, for a change, Albuquerque actually playing Albuquerque on screen. I can’t think of a time in the last few years that’s actually been the case. Although some may argue that painting Albuquerque as a hotbed of drug-dealing isn’t exactly good for the tourism industry, the show adopts neither an exploitative nor a rose-colored perspective. In today’s corrupt climate, this story could have taken place just about anywhere. But the image of flabby, middle-aged Walter standing in the middle of the New Mexican desert in his tighty-whiteys with a Glock in his hand is priceless--right up there with David Bowie walking down a slag pile in Madrid or Benicio Del Toro shooting up the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas.
“Breaking Bad” airs every Sunday night at 8 p.m. on AMC.