Reality bites 

January may not be the coldest month in television, but in 2008 it promises to be the strangest. In the wake of resurrecting Bionic Woman, NBC has exhumed American Gladiators for Monday nights (8 p.m., Channel 4), proving conclusively that the hoary programmers at 30 Rock stumbled upon Heroes completely by accident. (Coming next month, no fooling: Knight Rider!)

FOX, never one to be challenged for lack of originality, and secure with its winter meal ticket American Idol back on the air (8 p.m. tonight, Channel 2), is force-feeding America some Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles rehash — albeit quite impressive, with a dash of femininity — as Monday night competition for Gladiators. It’s also launching a lie-detector game show, The Moment of Truth (9 p.m. Jan. 23). Didn’t CBS try that in the 1950s?

One of TV’s few shining lights, HBO’s Peabody Award-winning street saga The Wire, has begun its final season. Meanwhile, CourtTV abandoned 16 years of name equity this month and became a new network called truTV. ("Not reality. Actuality." How pretentious. ) ABC is scrambling to sustain the ratings phenomenon of Dancing With the Stars by pitting two judges against each other on Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann (8 p.m. Mondays, Channel 7). The only network mini-series of note, this week’s Comanche Moon (concluding at 9 tonight, Channel 62), is capitalizing on the 1989 Western classic Lonesome Dove. Bravo has fashioned a companion to its hit Project Runway called Make Me a Supermodel (11 p.m Wednesdays). A Celebrity Apprentice (9 p.m. Thursdays, NBC) too? Is there not one sliver of programming creativity left anywhere in this damn winter wasteland?

Wait! Here’s a show about a prickly high school chemistry teacher who builds his own rolling meth lab! Now that’s original!

American Movie Classics, home of well-worn feature films, may be the last place you’d turn to find an unconventional scripted drama. However, hard on the heels of its ’60s-era success Mad Men and overcoming its fear of advertiser and viewer backlash, AMC is giving us by far the most inventive and provocative new series of this midseason in Breaking Bad, premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday. And while cynics might dismiss it as an attempt to imitate Showtime’s drug-induced hit Weeds, there is a pervasive sense of melancholy fused with menace that clearly sets this storyline apart.

Bryan Cranston, who revealed his penchant for appearing half nekkid as Frankie Muniz’s dad on Malcolm in the Middle and still apparently prefers tighty whities on camera, stars as Walter White, a man whose life generally blows. Once part of a Nobel Prize-winning research team, his career has disintegrated into performing science experiments for blank-eyed teenagers and working part-time at a car wash to make ends meet, detailing the tires of his students’ vehicles. His frustrated wife (Anna Gunn) helps out selling bric-a-brac on eBay. His teen son has special needs. White’s midlife has turned from crisis to comatose. Then comes the Big Hit: cancer, and it’s terminal.

Walt can’t leave his family in this sorry state. What to do? One night, listening to his loutish brother-in-law, a DEA agent, crow about a major methamphetamine bust and the bundles of cash recovered, the chemist concocts a daring experiment. Insisting on going on a ride-along raid (to see a meth lab operation firsthand), Walter chances upon cocky former student Jesse (Aaron Paul), who managed to escape arrest. His proposal to the young drug dealer is simple: Let me produce your meth and sell it with me, or I’ll turn you in. A stunned Jesse responds: "C’mon man, some straight like you, giant tick up his ass, all of a sudden
at age what, 60, he’s just gonna break bad? It’s weird, that’s all. Listen, if you’ve gone crazy, or depressed, that’s something I need to know about."

To which Walter simply responds, "I am awake. We start tomorrow."

Incredibly, impending death has given Walter a renewed sense of life. Created and executive produced by Vince Gilligan (The X-Files), Breaking Bad is part crime story, part character study and wholly compelling. It’s a rush.

Breaking Bad is, of course, a rarity on the present TV landscape — a new series that isn’t reality based or a game show — due to the nearly three-month-old Writers Guild of America strike. An open plea to WGA members: Give up. Surrender. Settle your Internet-use compensation issues for whatever you can get and be thankful you have jobs. Because the decision by Leno, Letterman, O’Brien and Stewart to return to the air with new shows this month despite the writers’ walkout has struck the first serious blow to what little bargaining power you had. Survivors of the Great Detroit Newspaper Strike of ’95 could tell you what chance you have of negotiating a fair deal if you can’t stop the flow of production. Your valiant effort now has as much chance of staying afloat as a dented dirigible. Oh, the humanity. Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to

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