It would be easy to be put off by "Breaking Bad," a new AMC series about a high school chemistry teacher, hit by the one-two punch of a midlife crisis and a diagnosis of terminal cancer, who sets himself up, or tries to, in the manufacture of crystal meth. It's possible for a housewife dealing marijuana to come off as charming, but speed kills. (Is "Weeds" TV's gateway-drug series? What's next? Ernest Borgnine in a Hallmark movie about a gruff old heroin dealer? Crack on "Sesame Street?")
And then there are those ads, showing star Bryan Cranston (late of "Malcolm in the Middle") wearing white cotton briefs and the saddest and most disturbing of mustaches.
But it's very good, "Breaking Bad," although as sad and disturbing as the mustache implies. (That's not to say there aren't a few laughs along the way.) Creator Vince Gilligan, who also directed the pilot, is a veteran of "The X Files," a show that specialized in stories about small lives messily going to pieces.
Like AMC's other current dramatic series, "Mad Men," it's about a man escaping an old life into a new one. Walter White is as pale a figure as his name, an Albuquerque milquetoast professor whose real love of his subject is shared by none of his students -- not even one, apparently -- or anyone else in his world. ("Ya got a brain the size of Wisconsin," says Walt's federal drug agent brother-in-law, played by Dean Norris, by way of a 50th birthday toast, "but we're not going to hold that against ya.") He has a wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who is pregnant, and a teenage son with cerebral palsy (RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy). Walt has a second job, in a carwash, because I suppose they don't pay teachers any better in Albuquerque than they do anywhere else. Skyler sells things on EBay, even during sex.
Looking for a way to leave some money for his family, Walt blackmails an ex-student, Jesse (Aaron Paul), into taking him on as a partner in the manufacturer of methamphetamine. ("We will produce a chemically pure and stable substance that performs as advertised.") Jesse calls him "Mr. White," a sign that, although he considers Walt a pack of trouble, he also has some vestigial reflexive respect for him. It's as if Jeff Spicoli and Mr. Hand went into business together: "You wouldn't apply heat to a volumetric flask," Walt barks in exasperation. "That's what a boiling flask is for. Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?"
Gilligan and Cranston oversell Walt's meekness at first; he is befuddled by his students and browbeaten by his boss at the carwash. How did he get so gray? Twenty years earlier he had been a "contributor to research" that won a Nobel Prize; he had long hair and wore a tank top. He has a good-looking, short-story-writing wife more than a decade his junior; at some point he was lively enough to win her. His teenage son seems to actually like him. Apart from that death sentence, which in fact serves to wake him up, his life's not so bad, and his rut initially plays like a dramatic contrivance. But once that's settled, and things go off the rails, it's all completely gripping.
Cable has changed the rules somewhat -- what with everyone working to be edgier than thou -- but doomed heroes are still rare on television, which likes to hold out the possibility of a series returning. The trajectory of "Breaking Bad" seems more like a movie, or a novel, an accumulation of complications that will not necessarily admit to a sequel. (There is always a way to come back, of course, if the applause is loud enough.) You hope for Walt to get through it doing the least damage possible (although he does some major damage very quickly) and at least retaining the love of his family. You root for Jesse too, because there is something about the character, as hapless, disorganized and morally shortsighted as he is, that loves life, and something charmingly lost-doggish in Paul's portrayal.
At the same time, you know it will not go so well for them. But people hung on for eight years feeling anxious for Tony Soprano. And Walter's only been given two years to live.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-SLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for sex, coarse language and violence)