What would happen if Mr. Kotter turned into Scarface?
That's the theme at hand as AMC's brilliant Breaking Bad returns for its fifth and final season, broken into two, 8-episode cycles airing this year and next.
As the show returns Sunday, resident antihero and high school science teacher-turned crystal meth-maker Walter White (Bryan Cranston), has just eliminated the kingpin drug dealer who employed him, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
Using a bomb attached to an enemy of Fring's in a convalescent home — I can't believe AMC has shown the scene where Fring walks out of the explosion with half his face blown off in commercials — White is now deadlier than ever.
Over the course of four seasons, we've seen White morph from a frustrated high school teacher with cancer, turning to meth as a way to fund his treatment and keep his family afloat, into a ruthless player in New Mexico's illegal drug scene.
And throughout his descent into the criminal life, White's transformation has been a series of simple, awful choices.
He turns to making methamphetamine as a source of cheap and easy profit. When his partner and former student gets distracted by love, White removes the distraction by letting the girlfriend choke to death after she gets high. When Fring hires another chemist to learn his methods, White send his young partner to kill him.
And when Fring finally decided to end their lives, White blew up a room in a senior citizens home to end the threat.
Tired of living in fear from cops and his criminal partners, White has become the big fish of crime in his small town, using his talent for manipulation to stay one step ahead. But what happens when a man with children and an alienated wife goes from beleaguered employee to mack daddy master criminal?
The first two episodes of this season find White and partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cleaning up the mess from last season's action, including dealing with any clues Fring may have left connecting them to his drug business.
In the meantime, White has to hide how he poisoned the son of Pinkman's latest girlfriend to pull him back into their partnership, while keeping his government agent brother-in-law from discovering his secret source of income.
If it sounds a bit like Peyton Place set in New Mexico's drug underground, that's only because executive producer Vince Gilligan's sly, overlapping plotlines keep the show's sprawling cast bouncing off each other.
Gilligan's eye for detail is also amazing. In one scene, viewers' few clues that it is a flashback comes from White's haircut and the fact that he's still taking medication (his cancer has been in remission for a while now; staying in the drug trade after he got well was just another awful choice).
The executive producer has said he wanted to make a series where the protagonist turned into an antagonist. And as the fifth season opens, we see White more confident than ever — convinced he's smarter than anyone else in the room and ready to take Fring's place at the top of Albuquerque's drug industry.
But when ruthless choices become easy, what does a man sacrifice?
Something tells me that, over the course of this final season, we're all going to find out in the most entertaining, breathtaking way possible.
New series | NY Med
As a critic who is supposed to be fair and open minded, I shouldn't be admitting this.
But I hate most reality TV.
My biggest beef is the misnomer of the genre's name itself. Most so-called reality TV shows are anything but, mostly because they refuse to admit the influence of the show's producers.
But every so often, a really good unscripted show punches through the muck of Real Housewives knockoffs and makes an impact.
That show, this year, is ABC's NY Med.
Filmed over a year at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, this series condenses 3,000 hours of footage into a potent look at some of the sharpest doctors in the world.
It is the best dose of "reality TV" in the world, tracking everything from well-known TV doctor Mehmet Oz — a renowned heart surgeon who stills performs one procedure a week at the hospital — to a trauma surgeon who came to the United States as an illegal immigrant; a pediatric surgeon who takes a tumor out of a 4-year-old; and a Gulf War veteran with HIV getting a heart transplant.
Series executive producer Terence Wrong takes issue with one part of my analysis.
"I've been doing these since before reality TV existed, so I don't call them reality TV," said Wrong, who first created Hopkins 24/7, spotlighting Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore as a special for ABC in 2000. "I challenge anybody to show me a 'quote' reality TV show where somebody dies. It's so hard to peg it correctly."
He points out an important difference between his subjects and most reality TV people.
"There's no one going on here because they were hanging out on a beach in Santa Monica and they're not getting paid," said Wrong of his doctor subjects. "In fact, their careers are somewhat jeopardized by going on the show."
Wrong, whose mother died during an operation performed by one of the doctors in the series years ago (he won't say who), works hard to reveal the humanity behind the medicine.
Oz is shown commiserating with co-workers like the mayor of the hospital, while another episode shows a homeless woman who had been coming to the emergency room for 20 years dying during a visit (experienced staffers, one of whom had pictures of her as a young woman on his computer, cried as they heard the news).
Wrong said he suspected patients participated to take control of some part of their illness.
"You can go to the best hospital and have the best doctor, but in the end a good part of this is luck," said Wrong. "It's fate. And there is no better television than getting that story onscreen."
NY Med debuts at 10 p.m. July 10 on ABC.