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Creator: Vince Gilligan
Airs: Sundays, 10pm, AMC

Darkness is like nudity: it can be grossly gratuitous or aesthetically appropriate. AMC’s new drama, Breaking Bad, is filmed on-location in Albuquerque, New Mexico—not quite the middle-of-nowhere, but close enough for dramedic purposes. It’s also home of Little Miss Sunshine’s Hoover Family, whose convenient quirks were items on a checklist in the dysfunctional family chemistry textbook.

But Breaking Bad finds believability in the same arid, idiosyncratic New Mexico landscape where Little Miss Sunshine’s gratuitous darkness put on a barely convincing show of dysfunction. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, high-school chemistry teacher by day and meth cooker by, well, later in the day, is compellingly screwed-up. He’s just turned fifty, and his doctor has given him good reason to have a mid-life crisis. Terminal lung cancer, struggling writer of a wife, and autistic son aside, though, it seems like Walter was never all that happy.

Which is why his spiral to drug dealing is so plausible. It’s a last-resort decision without the guidance-counselor idealism of Little Miss Sunshine. And Breaking Bad doesn’t need to spread out all of its dysfunction among the family: it’s all crammed into Walter like those facts you manage to get in last-minute before a test. You end up remembering them only because they’re the most important.