‘Breaking Bad’ continues to be a great show, but difficult to watch

Television Critic

And so we begin a third season of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” relating the misadventures of a meth-making high school teacher, family man and cancer victim; his partner and former student; and the people whose lives they ruin, or have so far just barely managed not to.

Sunday’s season opener picks up where the second season finale left off, in the wake of a massive midair collision over the Albuquerque home of our antihero, Walter White ( Bryan Cranston), a collision he indirectly caused by his failure to intervene when the junkie daughter of a subsequently distraught air-traffic controller -- also the adored girlfriend of partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) -- choked on her own vomit. We find him poolside, bitterly contemplating, and nearly barbecuing, half a million or so dollars in ill-gotten gains; for what shall it profit a man if he gain a boodle and lose his family?

Wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), who has stumbled on to the fact that Walt is somehow mixed up in drugs -- “I’m a manufacturer, not a dealer . . . per se,” he says, a pedantic stickler for accuracy when he isn’t making up stuff -- is about to sue for divorce, taking his 16-year-old son (RJ Mitte), the only person in the world who completely respects him, and infant daughter with her. The first irony here is that it was to provide for his family after his imminently expected death that he first used his knowledge of chemistry for evil; the second is that, just as the family falls apart, he learns he’s going to live.

The show’s comic notes, which could be jarringly farcical early on, are mostly gone this season, or gone for now, Bob Odenkirk’s greasy strip-mall lawyer being the sole exception; it’s the inevitable upshot of allowing the characters to become real within their world. There is only so much fun that decently can be had around this sort of stuff, and as Walt’s crimes have multiplied, his good points have grown dim. He loves his family, cares semi-paternally for his partner, and he’s good at what he does, but as a supposedly responsible adult he’s a failure who creates only problems where he means to implement solutions.

He’s certainly done no favors for Jesse, who is back from rehab, clear-eyed and dead-eyed: “You either run from things or you face them, Mr. White. . . . I accept who I am . . . I’m the bad guy.”

Walt, by contrast, does all he can to see himself as . . . not the bad guy. “I am not a criminal,” he tells Gustavo ( Giancarlo Esposito), the fast-food-franchising drug kingpin, “no offense to any people who are.” Addressing a student assembly after the air crash, he advises them to “look on the bright side” and points out that “what you’re left with, casualty-wise, is the 50th worst air disaster, actually tied for 50th.”

But there is no bright side here, only the temporary forestalling of total disaster. Walt has done a lot of bad, bad things that in the ordinary course of events require punishment; he has forfeited any right to the moral high ground, which he nevertheless insists on occupying. And now moving shark-like from the south comes danger in the double threat of a cold-eyed pair of emissaries of a Mexican drug cartel.

I’m not sure what mixture of network edge-pushing and mass appetite has driven contemporary drama so firmly into the arms of the antiheroes. Firefighters, cops, teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and mothers -- nearly every cable and basic-cable drama now or recently on the air has at its center a character of questionable character. Often threatened by the law on one side and worse lawbreakers on the other, they are nimble or lucky enough -- and watchable enough, from a viewer’s perspective -- to survive from season to season.

I understand the appeal, even the social utility of such stories. But whereas “Oedipus Rex,” “Macbeth” and “Death of a Salesman” get their business done in a couple of hours and release you to your hopefully happier, or more happily deluded, life, a TV series comes at you week after week; it can become exhausting. Smartly written and produced and brilliantly played -- mention should be made of creator Vince Gilligan and of Dean Norris as Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, grown from a handy blowhard to a complicated good guy -- “Breaking Bad” is as good as a show on this subject could possibly get, but the subject has its drawbacks. I like it, I admire it, but I can’t say I enjoy it.