On paper, this show should have never worked.
You take a character actor best known from a beloved half-hour family comedy, where he basically played a charming buffoon in an inspired supporting role. Take this actor and give him a new series, on an untested basic cable network, that involves an everyday, middle-aged family man struggling to make ends meet. He has a teenage son who has cerebral palsy. He has a wife with an unplanned pregnancy. He teaches high school chemistry to a bunch of over privileged malcontents. He has a crappy second job at a car wash with a pit-bull jerk for a boss. Give him a bad mustache, some lame-dad Dockers, a plaid look and make him as pathetic as possible.
Now, give him terminal cancer. Give him sub-par health and life insurance and give him a very short time to live.
Now, have him hook up with a former student who is trying to make his name in the drug trade. Have him use his chemistry skills to make a superior form of methamphetamine. He's only doing it to get his family some cash to survive on when he cashes out.
Now, make things go downhill quickly. How downhill? How about flushing the liquified remains of low-level cartel dudes down the toilet by episode No. 3. Have him desperately try to keep all of this from his family.
Also, make his brother-in-law a DEA agent.
This is the powder-keg formula for AMC's highly acclaimed series "Breaking Bad," which premieres the first episode of its fifth and final season at 8 p.m. tonight.
That hapless and doomed character known as Walter White from that first season has had one of the most riveting arcs in contemporary television.
Over the course of four seasons, actor Bryan Cranston and show creator Vince Gilligan have transformed Walter from a brilliant and overqualified doormat for the new economy into an ego-driven, amoral titan of a blood industry. Along the way, he has brought his family further into danger and made them an accomplice and collateral victims to his crimes.
The hit show has racked up numerous awards, and is possibly the most critically lauded show currently on television. What wouldn't have made sense on paper (at a major network anyway) has given the Great Recession its defining saga.
Part of what makes the show work so well is Walter's volatile relationship with his former student and current partner Jesse Pinkman, played by actor Aaron Paul. When we first met Jesse, he was a young man with no direction -- a black sheep screw-up from an upper middle-class family trying to play at being gangsta to get back at mom and dad. He acts like Fred Durst, cooks bad drugs and postures around juiced-in guys hoping for acceptance. He behaves like he couldn't give a rat's behind about anything but street cred and money.
At least at first; Jesse soon reveals a level of depth, loyalty and humanity that have all but evaporated from Walter's worldview over the progression of the series.
Jesse, so ruthlessly manipulated by Walter, is perhaps one of the series' most tragic victims: an insecure kid who has seen too much and is smart enough to know what it means, but not wise enough to pull out. He has chosen his path, and in his growing existential outlook, he seems to figure: So be it.
"Breaking Bad" goes to great lengths to flesh out its characters, from Walt's hypocritical wife Skyler (played by "Deadwood" alum Anna Gunn), his scumbag strip-mall lawyer Sal (a scene-stealing Bob Odenkirk) and boisterous tough-guy brother-in-law Hank(played by Dean Norris.) It is also disturbingly effective in dropping you into the grisly realities of the drug trade, taking those horror stories from across the border and putting them right into your living room.
Watching an episode of "Breaking Bad" is an endurance test. You sweat, your heart races, you wince in pain, and you laugh at things that make you feel sick. You care about the fates of people you shouldn't.
By episode's end, you are shocked and relieved to have made it through the emotional and sometimes very actual carnage. And once it's over, you will want to do it again.
If you've been following "Breaking Bad," then you already know that it is as addictive as the illegal substance at its core, a pitch-black ride into the nihilistic berserk that lurks beneath this country's exterior.
If you haven't taken in the plight of Walter White and the perils he and his circle are sinking in, hit up past episodes on Netflix or pick up the box sets, because what happens in this story's final stretch, given the quality up to now, is sure to make TV history.
Walter White is the anti-hero for our time, a man who thought he had nothing to lose and sits on the precipice of losing everything.