Walter H. White (Bryan Cranston) is your average run of the mill chemistry teacher; he’s just turned 50, his wife is pregnant, his son has cerebral palsy and he’s working two jobs, living paycheque to paycheque; that is until he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and decides to start cooking crystal meth so that he’ll have some money to leave his family when he’s gone.
In a nutshell, that’s the premise of Breaking Bad, a morally ambiguous series about an average, and generally boring man, and the lengths he will go to in order to see that his family is provided for when he gets pushed to the limit.
Now obviously a run of the mill, straight arrowed, fifty year old, chemistry teacher wouldn’t have many friends in the drug trade, but after Walt gets diagnosed he goes looking for a little excitement and asks his D.E.A. brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), to take him on a ride-along, where, during a raid on a meth lab, he notices one of his ex-students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) quietly slip away, and as Jesse’s partner has just been arrested and is looking at a hefty sentence, it provides Walt with the ideal opportunity to enter the business.
Naturally when approached by Walt, Jesse is a little apprehensive being that Walt was the straightest guy Jesse ever knew, and is confused as to when he reaches 50 he would suddenly ‘break bad’ (hence the series title), but nevertheless with the choice being work with Walt or have no partner and face being turned in by him, he reluctantly accepts.
With Jesse’s acceptance, an unbreakable partnership is formed that is the making of televisions new odd couple; Jesse is young and dumb, Walt is middle aged and a borderline genius, Jesse wears baggy clothes, takes drugs and makes a living breaking the law, Walt dresses smart and has never touched drugs or broken the law in his life. However, it is these differences that truly make the partnership, because after a shocking turn of events unites the pair, it becomes immensely fun to watch them bicker over things as small as not leaving magazines in the meth lab, or wearing gloves, to major things such as how best to kill a man.
This unusual partnership is enhanced by not only a great script, but the onscreen chemistry between Cranston and Aaron Paul, who both slot into their characters and gel with each other perfectly. In fact Cranston’s performance is so good that it has earned him both an Emmy Award and a Satellite Award, which are well deserved for such a believable and often subtle performance. Among the bickering and comedic scenes Cranston has a huge deal of emotional scenes to play, mostly concerning his diagnosis and family issues revolving around his condition (one scene in particular, a family intervention to convince Walt to undergo chemotherapy, is one of the most compelling, realistic, emotional and fantastically acted scenes shown on television in years), in which he conveys a huge amount of inner turmoil, denial and seriousness seemingly without effort. Watching the show you soon forget that Cranston was ever Hal in Malcolm in The Middle, not only because you never knew he could be that good, but because his performance, and the show as a whole is so compelling.
The rest of the acting is also solid as Aaron Paul plays the scared and pathetic stoner/wannbe drug dealer with relative ease, often providing a comic element to the show. Anna Gunn does a good job of successfully grounding the show and pulling Walt away from the drug world and back to normality as Walt’s heavily pregnant wife Skyler, as does RJ Mitte as Walter White Junior, Walt’s disabled son. The only questionable characters/performances come from Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, who is a complete macho, D.E.A. Agent cliché, although acted as realistically as possible by Dean Norris, and big time drug dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz) who’s performance is just too over the top, and while it may be fun to watch the excessive nature with which the character is played has a tendency to detach the viewer from the show, altering the pacing and remind the viewer that Breaking Bad is just a TV show.
In short Breaking Bad is a brilliant and harrowingly realistic television show that is suitable for just about anyone. Each episode is like a mini movie in its own right and with just the right mix of drama, action and comedy (the comedy in the show is often unexpected, always black, and often brilliant) it’s the perfect blend for an award winning show that actually deserves its awards.
During its short, seven episode, first season it creates some almost unforgettable images; from Walt in his underwear aiming a gun at God only knows what, to exploding drug deals and raining guts, but where the show really shines is in the acting talent, and naturalistic script that recreates emotional family moments so well and that feel so real they actually brought the film crew to tears. A programme that really should not be missed, by anyone; old or young.
Being released in only standard definition the DVD picture quality was never going to reach the heights of Blu-ray releases such as Fringe or The Tudors, but it is by no means a bad transfer; being bestowed with a quality that is much more than adequate, and does justice to its cinematic shooting style by presenting an image that is, for the most part, acceptably clear and detailed, with few print errors or flaws visible during standard viewing.
The colour palette consists mainly of greens and various shades of brown or grey contrasting with a consistently clear blue sky, which all look best during the outdoor scenes usually associated with Walt’s cooking habits. Colours generally appear to be exaggerated, especially in the scenes mentioned above (the iconic cover image being a prime example), and as a side effect fleshtones don’t appear too natural looking and are instead much redder than one would expect, although the tone does fit within the general colour scheme and therefore does not distract from the show.
Colour levels may not be to everyone’s taste, but in terms of print errors, detail and general quality, there isn’t a thing wrong with Breaking Bad’s picture quality. Sure it’s not mind blowing but it’s nowhere near bad, and with a show this good it’d be worth buying even if it looked terrible.
The main audio track bundled with Breaking Bad is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that has its moments, but for the most part remains overly subtle, and will neither impress nor disappoint, to the point it will simply go unnoticed by the majority of viewers.
The majority of noticeable audio moments occur in the series pilot during several scenes that rely heavily on music (and one with a fire truck), pumping out a nice amount of bass and keeping not only the music but all background audio perfectly clear. There are other moments through the series (including a rather substantial explosion) where the speakers and bass levels are tested, but it is primarily dialogue that is heard resonating through the speakers, and always at a clear and natural level.
Overall not the most substantial or mind blowing soundtrack, but one that will satisfy anyone watching, as there are no levelling issues, all sounds are well placed and perfectly clear, and the most important part of the show, dialogue, is presented as naturally as possible.
Even though the first series only lasted seven episodes (another victim of the Writer’s Strike) the DVD boxset comes bundled with a plethora of extras that really attempts to give something back to the fans.
Extras include commentaries on two different episodes (both provided by series creator Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston), a selection of deleted and extended scenes, a making of featurette, photo gallery, cast members screen tests, an interview with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston and Mark Johnson, and a section titled ‘Inside Breaking Bad’ which is a collection of short behind the scenes clips taken from the AMC website.
Both commentaries share the mood of the other features and are surprisingly light, providing a nice account of how the show came into being, and offering some amusing studio stories and interesting slices of trivia, and as the episodes aren’t too long, they never drag too much.
The deleted, and extended scenes, are all fairly short, and while some are interesting it is, for the most part, a good thing that they were trimmed, as they add little to the episodes from which they were cut. Having said that, most were trimmed purely for time issues, and so deserve a look, especially the scene in which Walt finally shaves his head (something Cranston actually did on camera, with an expression so serious, and so hurt, it begs belief), although the deleted scenes haven’t been given the same attention as the final cut, and as such the picture quality isn’t quite up to the high standard set by the rest of the content.
The feature ‘Inside Breaking Bad’ is an interesting and well laid out collection of 14 shorts from the AMC promotional website covering material from the comedy element of the show, to Walt and Jesse’s best bits, and even Walt’s choice of underwear and the violence of Tuco. All of the shorts warrant a watch, and contain interesting interviews from series creator Vince Gilligan covering aspects such as the choice of episode titles and the crew shaving their heads.
The making of featurette is a standard behind the scenes feature, and reuses much of the material seen in the shorts, but does go into more detail. Vince’s photo gallery is interesting and does contain some classic images, but many viewers would get bored flicking through set pictures, as they would watching the screen tests, which are completely flat and void of all the comic or emotional elements when taken out of context, and would only really interest the actors or their families, if they fancied a laugh.
A well laid out and thoughtful collection of extras that will entertain both die-hard fans and casual viewers alike; with the inclusion of website shorts being a wise choice, as it allows the more casual viewer to pick and choose the part of the show that they want to learn about, and not simply get bogged down with an hour long featurette which may easily bore. Well made, well presented and easily accessible, the extras included are both plentiful and worthwhile; containing little filler material, a template that should be used with more boxsets.
The Bottom Line:
To conclude, Breaking Bad is simply a must own series; it’s as real as any other series that contains such sensitive material, presenting a range of situations that many families will have found themselves in, and all acted with such emotion that it may truly affect some viewers. All of the characters are realistically flawed and played exceptionally well in not only the serious and emotional scenes, but also the fun and outrageous ones.
Despite its fairly serious premise, Breaking Bad is loaded with fun; it has a great deal of dry humour that is guaranteed to entertain (from witty interactions and sarcasm between Walt and Jesse, to simply laughing at daft costumes), and some large drug deals and D.E.A. raids which are always fun to watch, especially seeing Walt so far out of his element and diving too far into a world that he simply doesn’t understand.
The DVD is also well worth the money, picture quality is as good, if not better than most other major television series, the audio might not be the most expansive or ground shaking soundtrack ever to be attached to a series but it contains perfectly clear and well placed dialogue with no levelling issues whatsoever, and the extras are all worthwhile, well arranged and easy to watch.
Whilst this first season contains only seven episodes it is a perfect introduction to Walt’s world, and accurately creates a totally immersive and completely believable world in which Walt’s actions, whilst morally wrong, can be easily understood and sympathized with. There’s enough genuine humour and true emotion in this series to propel it into more awards ceremonies, and really resonate with a large number of audiences as it’s one that practically everyone can enjoy, whether you appreciate a good heartfelt drama, watching someone attempt to make it in the hard and fast drug trade, or just appreciate some well made dark humour.
This is a series that should not just be watched, but owned by most people, as anyone who has seen it is sure to plan a repeat viewing. One of the best and most original television series in years.