In the hands of creator Vince Gilligan (The X-Files), Bad's first season plays like the improbable offspring of Weeds and The Shield. With nothing left to lose, the Albuquerque 50-year-old uses his death sentence as a catalyst to break every rule he's ever followed while keeping his family--including Skyler's radiologist sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), and her DEA agent husband, Hank (Dean Norris)--out of the loop. Throughout these seven episodes, Walt takes on a hostage, a dead body, and a partner who likes to sample his own product. Based on the description alone, the program shouldn't work as well as it does, except Gilligan and company keep the situations psychologically believable and Emmy winner Cranston makes Walt surprisingly sympathetic as he swings between compassion and self-interest. As he tells his students, "Chemistry is the study of change," a statement that applies equally well to the show, since Walt ends up in a very different place than the one he began. This three-disc set comes complete with cast and crew commentary, an installment of AMC's Shootout, two featurettes, deleted scenes, and screen tests. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season
As Breaking Bad's first year concluded, chemistry teacher Walt (two-time Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston) and his meth-making partner, Jesse (Emmy-nominee Aaron Paul), hooked up with drug kingpin Tuco (Raymond Cruz), and the money started to roll in. They expected some degree of danger--but not a homicidal maniac. When DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris) starts to close in on Tuco, he kidnaps the duo, who eventually escape, but the experience creates a host of new complications, leaving Jesse temporarily homeless and driving a wedge between Walt and his pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and their 15-year-old son, Walt Jr. (R. J. Mitte). In his commentary, creator Vince Gilligan explains that the "chickens come home to roost" in season 2 as Walt's criminal activity catches up with him. In effect, he lives out the psychological version of The Fly, with his double life merging into one, such that he starts to become as ruthless as Tuco. Hank, meanwhile, gets a promotion that expands his jurisdiction to El Paso, while Skyler takes an accounting job that could cause her to "break bad" in season 3.
If this AMC hit lacked a sense of humor, it just might be too hard to take. Aside from Walt's incurable illness and Hank's post-traumatic stress disorder, there's a head crushing, a shooting, an explosion, and an overdose. Though Walt and Skyler get few humorous moments, Jesse, Hank, and ambulance-chasing attorney Saul (Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk, an inspired addition) make the most of theirs. Jesse even gets a girlfriend (Krysten Ritter), who comes with a wary father (John de Lancie)--but there's still more shadow than light (not counting those panoramic desert shots). Strong stuff, but it's impossible to look away. Extensive extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, and featurettes on every episode. --Kathleen C. Fennessy