THE SHOW "Breaking Bad"
WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC
REASON TO WATCH Third-season premiere
QUICK OVERVIEW A middle-age high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He decides to launch a meth lab with a former student, Jesse (Aaron Paul), to pay his medical bills and to leave a nest egg for his family.
CATCHING UP A plane collision over Albuquerque has showered the city with wreckage, body parts and tragic reminders of the 167 lives lost. Walter knows he bears some responsibility because he essentially murdered Jesse's girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) by allowing her to die during a heroin overdose. Jane's father is an air traffic controller and, blind with grief, accidentally sends the planes into each other. Meanwhile, Walter's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), learns of Walter's many lies while he's under anesthesia. He is later booted out of the house.
SUNDAY AND BEYOND Under a blue desert sky, with clouds towering over distant peaks, an old man is crawling through the dirt - one hand over the other. He is joined by others, and others. The desert floor is covered with prostrate, wriggling bodies, all pulling in the same direction, when a late-model Mercedes pulls up. Out step two men - you shall know them henceforth simply as the Cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada) - and they too join this odd procession. They are, you suspect, very bad men and your suspicions are correct. They have an interest in someone they know only by name: "Walter White."
Back in Albuquerque, the city is coming to grips with the horror in its midst, while Walter has a decision to make - continue his trade or try to get "Sky" back. He wants the latter.
MY SAY American culture has swooned over "Mad Men" but hardly seems to know "Breaking Bad" exists (despite Cranston winning two best actor Emmys). You can, for example, be assured that no "Breaking Bad" Barbie doll line is forthcoming. This indifference seems odd because they are fundamentally the same show - family and workplace dramas with fallen heroes, while the universe that governs each (to paraphrase Don Draper) is utterly indifferent and often absurd.
Yet "Breaking Bad" can be a superior program. The storytelling here is so sharp, so muscular, that you can almost feel your chest tighten as you watch. We know Cranston's performance is brilliant, but Gunn is equally stunning. So where's the love?
BOTTOM LINE Simply put, "Breaking Bad" can be sharply violent or as bleak as the New Mexican landscape in which it unfolds. Based on the first three episodes, have the producers softened these edges to lure a wary viewing public? You've got to be kidding. This show - still TV's best - remains utterly true to itself.