Our heroes (if you can call them that) are complete babes in the woods, you see. Walt may make the best crystal the world has ever seen, and Jesse may have a few drug connections in the parched New Mexico town where BB takes place, but once guys like Krazy 8, No-Doze, and Tuco enter the picture, these two naïfs are hopelessly out of their league and struggling just to stay alive. Aaron Paul is terrific as Jesse a puffy-eyed whiner reminiscent of Bill Paxton in Aliens. You can almost hear him groaning, ''Game over, man! Game over!'' But the real revelation is Bryan Cranston as Walt White. Now bald thanks to his character's chemotherapy, Cranston uses his craggy features to convey weariness, illness, and incipient madness. He's an American Everyman living under a constant Condition Red threat-level alert.
Whatever reasons American Movie Classics had for greenlighting BB, the payoff for viewers who like their suspense cocktails a little stronger than the usual Law & Order mojito is a big one. The second episode (''Grilled'') is a perfect case in point. No spoilers here; suffice it to say that Walt and Jesse's involvement with hellish drug kingpin Tuco (Raymond Cruz) comes to a head at a desert hideout where Tuco's stroke-afflicted uncle sits watching Mexican TV in a wheelchair with a little bell affixed to one arm: One ding means ''yes,'' no ding means ''no.'' Or is it the other way around? There's no way to be sure; the only thing we can be completely sure of is that Tuco's nuts and someone's gonna die. It's like watching No Country for Old Men crossbred with the malevolent spirit of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Thank God for basic cable, if it can produce programming as strange and compelling as this. Breaking Bad invites us into another world, just as The Shield and The Sopranos did, but Walt White could be a guy just down the block, the one who tried to teach the periodic table to your kids before he got sick. The swimming pool with the eye in it could be right down the block too. That's exactly what makes it all so funny, so frightening, and so compelling. This is rich stuff.