“Breaking Bad” returned for its fourth season July 17, continuing the story of Walter White, possibly the worst person currently the main subject of a television series. (Not counting reality TV — there is a lot of competition from that quarter.)
For those who have not been following along — and more of you are, with the fourth-season premiere up 30% from last year’s — White, played by Bryan Cranston, is a former chemistry teacher impelled by a diagnosis of cancer, a desire to provide for his family and a series of fortuitous/ruinous coincidences into the manufacturing of methamphetamine. He beats the cancer but continues the drug-making, growing into a murderously empowered version of his needy, sad-sack self.
It is a smartly made show, with a great cast, on AMC. (Cranston has won three Emmys; Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse, his former student and current partner, has won one.) And yet, the growing crowd notwithstanding, I find it dreadful, in the strict sense of the word; it is a bad trip. Walt has long since crossed the line in which it is possible for me to feel for him, and while this appears to be what creator Vince Gilligan, who has spoken of “comeuppance” in the series’ future, had in mind from the first, it is nevertheless a funny sort of fun.
Photos: Hollywood Backlot -- On the set of 'Breaking Bad'
There has been a lot of that lately in the world of prestige drama, of course. We are not yet out of the age of “The Sopranos,” which, when it muscled in on the cultural conversation back at the end of the 20th century, made darkness and dysfunction the norm, first for premium cable, then basic cable and broadcast TV: “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “The Tudors,” “The Borgias,” “Damages,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Weeds,” “Dexter,” “Californication,” “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “House” are, to varying degrees, its progeny. Many have been among the best things on television. But as much as I love Hugh Laurie, I am over the hopeless Gregory House; his ups and inevitable season-ending downs feel more contrived with every passing year, tricks to make a static character look dynamic.
In the same way, though Tony Soprano began as a person in apparent flux, long before the tardy end of “Sopranos” it was clear that the character was fatally fixed. Because it’s habitual to root for the person at the center of a story — and in stories like these there is usually someone worse around to make the antihero comparatively palatable — every so often David Chase would have Tony kill someone, as if to remind you that he was, in fact, a bad guy, and that a love of classic rock did not make him a better one.