No other current TV series balances sensitivity and toughness the way Breaking Bad does. The saga of the New Mexico high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer and a side business cooking meth enters its third season with the stakes raised. Our man Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has a bag with half a million in cash, but his drugmaking lucre hasn't brought happiness.
Instead, two things have happened. His wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), now believes her husband is a drug dealer (Walt's protestation ''I'm a manufacturer, not a dealer'' is a nicety of language that cuts no ice) and wants a divorce. And at the start of the season premiere (directed by Cranston), two super-threatening cousins (Luis and Daniel Moncada) representing the Mexican drug cartel Walt was involved with are coming after him with murder in their mirror-shaded eyes.
Meanwhile, Walt's meth-business partner, the addict Jesse (Aaron Paul), is still recovering from the drug-related death of his girlfriend Jane at the end of last season. He's fresh out of rehab (a ''45 Days'' sober medallion swings from his car rearview mirror) and emotionally vulnerable.
Breaking Bad is at once exquisitely attuned to the complexities of middle-aged marriage (in Walt's case) and young romance (in Jesse's), while also being as ruthlessly hard-boiled as a thriller can get. The series specializes in quiet menace, whether it emanates from the silent Mexican cousins with eerie rattlesnake skulls on the tips of their cowboy boots, or the buttoneddown danger represented by Giancarlo Esposito's Gus, a drug dealer who passes as an obsequious fast-food-restaurant manager.
By episode 2, there's the welcome return of the devious strip-mall lawyer Saul, played with rancid exuberance by Bob Odenkirk. Saul is trying to get Walt and Jesse their meth-lab business in limbo at the start of the season, with neither wanting to break the law anymore to return to their lucrative criminal ways.
Breaking Bad has, in short, everything you could want from an hour-long show: suspense, laughs, danger, and poignance. Cranston and Paul are remarkable in different ways Cranston for the way he renders Walt a brainy, angry old softy, Paul for the way he makes Jesse an earnest guy fated to make idiotic life choices. Anna Gunn is turning in Emmyworthy work with every scene she claims as her own, doing something fresh with the wronged-wife role. And Walt's DEA brother-in- law, Hank, has become in Dean Norris' portrayal less a buffoon who doesn't recognize the lawbreaker within his own family than a frustrated lawman on the verge of snapping.
All this, plus Bryan Cranston singing along to America's ''A Horse With No Name'' on the car radio. What more do you want from TV? A–