Walt White is desperately screwed, first by lung cancer and chemotherapy, then by an absolutely atrocious decision to go into the meth trade. He's gaunt, bald, filled with rage, a murderer frequently in peril of being murdered - a man trapped by disease and his own actions on a path that can lead only to death.

What agony this role in AMC's Breaking Bad must be for Bryan Cranston, whom we all know as the fumbler daddy Hal from Malcolm in the Middle! Surely the physical and emotional demands of being Walt must be exacting a stiff price on Cranston's well-being, a price he'll be paying for years as the series plays out.

Nope. It's acting, as the Master Thespian would say, and Cranston's enjoying almost every minute.

"I knew what was going to happen," he says on the telephone, which rings precisely at the appointed minute, reflecting his belief that it's self-aggrandizing and insulting to be late. "I knew he was going to drop weight. I knew it wasn't going to be pretty, and I also knew I was going to have to be disrobed."

Cranston himself suggested the droopy drawers that helped define Walt's dilemma in Breaking Bad's first season, not just a fish out of water, but a fish stranded in the Sahara that will keep wiggling its gills until it gasps its last breath in a futile, Sisyphean effort to get home.

His work won the best-actor Emmy, surprising not because it was not the best series acting last season, but because Breaking Bad is a tiny show on a tiny cable network that had already gotten way more than its standard ration of buzz for the elegantly complex Mad Men.

Gloriously costumed and set in the exciting long ago of New York in the '60s, Mad Men goes down like a Belvedere martini, smooth and sophisticated. By contrast, in the low-life environs and tasteless tract housing of Albuquerque (oceans away from Santa Fe, darlings) Breaking Bad is like rotgut tequila.

AMC - the channel is in the 30s or 40s on most Comcast lineups - ran a mini-marathon of the entire strike-shortened first season (seven episodes) Friday. Season 2 - all 13 episodes are in the can - begins tonight at 10.

Fitting into a tiny trend of series with criminal leads, Breaking Bad is tougher to watch than Showtime's Weeds, about a suburban-mom drug dealer, or Dexter, whose serial killer wields his bloody blades with good intentions.

But the rewards of Breaking are great. Lots of suspense, and the black humor of a situation in which a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher teams with one of his least successful students, who has a little, very little, entree into the drug world. (Not to mention that Walt's brother-in-law is the reddest-necked Drug Enforcement Administration operative in New Mexico.)

And there is a profound examination of family dynamics in the story of a man who would break bad so definitively and amorally in an effort to leave a nest egg for his pregnant wife and disabled son. Anna Gunn (the stalwart Martha Bullock in Deadwood) and 17-year-old RJ Mitte, who must exaggerate the mild symptoms of his own cerebral palsy to play Walt's son, give strong support.

Finally, there's Walt himself, as complex and compelling a character as any drama can provide. Because it's TV, the show can look continuously more deeply into his soul. And the show most likely will get a few years to do it, because it's on AMC, where making a name is as important as getting an audience, and a million viewers (at least six or seven times fewer than that required by a big-network audience) is just fine.

Five or six years in such a brutal role may sound like a grim sentence. Oh, no.

"Longevity is the joy of series as opposed to features," Cranston says. "We get to really investigate this man's life, the dichotomy of a good man who makes bad mistakes, the good and bad all in one life. We don't get to see the morning after. We get to explore it."

"For any actor, it's juicy. It's what we want. There's no need to feel sorry for me. I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do."

Jonathan Storm:


Breaking Bad

Tonight at 10 on AMC.