Ellen Gray: It's not too late to become a 'Breaking Bad' addict

Bryan Cranston (left) and Aaron Paul return as meth-making partners in AMC's gritty and brilliant "Breaking Bad."
Bryan Cranston (left) and Aaron Paul return as meth-making partners in AMC's gritty and brilliant "Breaking Bad."
Posted: July 14, 2011

BREAKING BAD. 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. 8 p.m. tomorrow, NBC 10.

MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! ZEN. 9 p.m. Sunday, WHYY.

FOR WEEKS NOW, people have asked me if there's still time to get in on "Breaking Bad," the AMC series about a high-school chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer that enters its fourth season Sunday.

Here's what I say: Where there's life (and Netflix and AMC's late-night reruns), there's hope.

Even for Walt White (Bryan Cranston), whose lung-cancer diagnosis initially triggered transformation from milquetoast to monster.

Each of the first three seasons yielded an Emmy win for Cranston, a string that will be broken this year if for no other reason than that the show's premiering too late to be eligible.

With nominations due this morning, expect leading men all over Hollywood to be breathing sighs of relief that they won't be in competition with that scary-looking guy who used to play the goofy dad on "Malcolm in the Middle."

But then, if the announcement that Ted Danson ("Damages," "Bored to Death") is joining CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" did nothing else, it reminded us there's no point in pigeonholing actors.

I've loved Cranston's extremes, and extreme is putting it mildly when it comes to "Breaking Bad," where the madness is spreading.

Anna Gunn ("Deadwood"), who plays Walt's estranged wife, Skyler, is discovering (and sinking to) hidden depths, while her sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), whose DEA agent husband, Hank (Dean Norris), is now an invalid, is hitting bottom. And don't look to Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt's troubled partner in crime, for a way out.

Television doesn't get much bleaker than "Breaking Bad," but unlike AMC's more popular zombie series, "The Walking Dead," which will be teasing its second season on Sunday, "Bad's" bleakness comes with a face still recognizably human.

And that's the scariest thing of all.

'Friday Night' farewell

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."

For five seasons, that's been the mantra of high-school football coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) on "Friday Night Lights," which ends its run on NBC tomorrow night in an episode likely to leave fans with overflowing hearts but slightly blurred vision.

I cry at Hallmark commercials. You all might be made of sterner stuff.

The series finale, first shown in February on DirecTV as part of the deal that kept alive one of television's best dramas ever, is a valentine to those who always knew that "FNL" was about much more than football.

From the beginning, it was driven by stories of family - Eric and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), and their daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), and all the other struggling people in fictional Dillon, Texas, whose lives seemed to revolve around a weekly football game but who were really just looking for something to love that would love them back as much as real families sometimes can't.

And in tomorrow's "Always," it's family that again overshadows the Big Game.

There's maybe been a little more wish-fulfillment than reality in the plot line that a couple of weeks ago brought Tami, a high-school guidance counselor, a huge job offer here in Philadelphia, but there's nothing less than honest in the depiction of the divide that opportunity revealed between Eric and Tami.

TV's most believable marriage may not be perfect, but the show that brought it to us has more often than not come pretty close.

The mystery of 'Zen'

I could probably come up with several reasons you should check out Rufus Sewell's premiere as an Italian police detective in PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!" Sunday.

But, hey, I had some of you at Rufus Sewell.

For the rest, I'll just say that the three-episode run of "Zen," based on a series of mysteries by Michael Dibdin about a Venice-born, Rome-based cop named Aurelio Zen - you thought maybe he was a Buddhist? - was absorbing enough that I'm planning to check out the books next.

Though it's hard to imagine they'll be as much fun without Sewell, who, in the grand BBC tradition that decrees "when in Rome, speak as the Britons do," manages to appear convincingly Italian without surrendering his native tongue.

Zen has a mother he lives with, an ex-wife who's trouble, a colleague he's maybe a little too fond of and bosses from hell.

Solving his cases isn't likely to really solve anything, but if you look at "Zen" as a tour of modern Rome with a devilishly handsome Englishman as your guide, you really can't go wrong. *

Send email to graye@phillynews.com, follow me on Twitter at @elgray or join the weekly TV chat today at noon: www.philly.com/tvchat.

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