What Did The Critics Say About ‘Breaking Bad’ Before It Premiered Five Years Ago?

When you have what many consider to be the greatest television series of all time going into its final seven episodes, it’s amusing to look back and see what the critics were saying about the series before Breaking Bad gained its place in American television history. I mean, nobody knew obviously what Breaking Bad would become, and anyone that watches it (except for THIS guy) understands that it’s only gotten better over its five season. It’s understandable if critics, at the time, were somewhat hesitant about Breaking Bad: Recall, that it was only the second series on AMC (after Mad Men) and that it came out during the height of Weeds, which relies on a vaguely similar premise.

I know I’ve been watching it since it debuted (in the month of January, no less, which seems weird for a show so associated with the summer now), but I couldn’t tell you what I thought of it after the premiere. Thanks to the Internet, however, we can at least look back at some of the early reviews (including Alan Sepinwall’s) to see what critics thought of the show at the time. NONE of them knew what was to come.

A modest review from the New York Times, noting that it’s “a hard slog” and not as good as Mad Men. It also draws comparisons to Weeds:

It’s the pacing that makes “Breaking Bad” more of a hard slog than a cautionary joy ride. It has good acting, particularly by Bryan Cranston (“Malcolm in the Middle”), who blends Walt’s sad-sack passivity with glints of wry self-awareness. But the misadventures of Walt and his slacker sidekick, Jesse (Aaron Paul), are a picaresque comedy filmed at the speed of a tragic opera — jokes, visual and verbal, are slowed down from 78 r.p.m. to 33 1/3 by an underlying earnestness, as if it were a foreign art film set in the American Southwest.

“Breaking Bad,” created by Vince Gilligan, a writer and executive producer of “The X-Files,” couldn’t be more different from “Mad Men,” but it also lacks that series’s originality and sparkle. This crime story is in many ways a bleaker male version of “Weeds,” Showtime’s comedy about a widowed soccer mom who sells pot to keep up with the Joneses.

The rest of Tom Shales review over on the Washington Post is better than this blurb would suggest, but for historical purposes, these two paragraphs are the most interesting:

[A] “cult hit” still seems the most that the creators of “Breaking Bad” can hope for. A mondo-bizarro, dark-as-midnight, bitterly bleak tragicomedy, the series premieres tomorrow night at 10 on AMC and all but busts a gut straining to be edgy and grim.

Obviously a show that finds humor in the production and distribution of a deadly, addictive drug, a show whose hero learns in the first episode that he has terminal lung cancer, a show in which vigorous attempts to destroy a corpse in a bathtub full of acid end with the remains of the body, and the tub, crashing through the ceiling to the floor below — well, there you have a show that is definitely “not for everybody.”

I think it’s quant in 2013 to think that Breaking Bad wouldn’t exactly fit on AMC — a channel, at the time, known for classic movies — when just five years later, the channel is virtually defined by Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead. This SFGate review also offers an amusing reminder that FX passed on the series.

Well, FX gave up on it. The network, which appears to have very few qualms about mangling the so-called envelope, loved the pilot of “Breaking Bad,” created by Vince Gilligan, a writer-director who was instrumental in making “The X-Files” a phenomenon. Still, FX apparently looked at Bryan Cranston (a long way from “Malcolm in the Middle”) cooking crystal meth in the New Mexico desert and said, “Uh, who’s going to advertise on this?” …

… It’s hard to watch. And you have to wonder whether people seeking out classic films on AMC who stumble on it are going to stay. It’s one thing to get intoxicated on the lush beauty of “Mad Men” and quite another to watch a desperate, dying man cook drugs in his underwear while wearing a gas mask.

Then again, let’s not worry about that. Once again AMC has put its money where its artistic ambition is, and “Breaking Bad” promises seven compelling and unique hours of drama – and who knows, it might get renewed – in a strike-damaged TV season.

I absolutely love that Alan Sepinwall, still writing for the New Jersey Star-Ledger at the time, wasn’t completely sold on the series yet, especially considering how much support he shows for it now.

“Breaking Bad” isn’t an out-of-the-box triumph like AMC’s previous drama series, “Mad Men.” “Mad Men” knew what it was from its opening shot, where the new show is still testing new compounds. Cranston’s performance alone is enough to keep me watching for a while, but I’d like to see something resembling a completed formula, and soon.

The Chicago Tribune compares it to a TNT show. Yikes.

My recommendation — and I do think the show is worth checking out — is not as hearty as I’d like it to be. “Breaking Bad” reminds me of TNT’s “Saving Grace,” another cable series that started strong then began to fizzle soon after its promising premiere. “Breaking Bad” likewise starts out strong then loses steam, especially in its unevenly paced third episode.

The Boston Herald, on the wrong side of history, was not a fan:

The opening shot confirms the worst. A pair of pants drop from the desert sky. A Winnebago careens crazily. A frantic Cranston yelps at the wheel, clad only in his underwear and a gas mask. Welcome to “Malcolm in the Meth Lab.” “Breaking Bad” is an uneven show about a man deep in crisis who chucks his moral compass and conversely finds his backbone once he is given a death sentence.

The other Boston paper, The Globe, wasn’t such a huge supporter, either:

You can feel creator Vince Gilligan (of “The X-Files”) straining to build an emblematic American fable and forgetting to fill in his story with particularities and believable motivations.

The most amusing of the bunch, however, comes from The AV Club, which loved the show:

After the towering achievement of Mad Men, third-rate movie channel AMC is suddenly a hot spot for serialized dramas. I hope that the basic cable equivalent of a sh*tload of viewers tuned in to the premiere of Breaking Bad on that basis alone. What they saw was nothing like the elegant social satire of Mad Men, but it certainly has promise, thanks to the mesmerizing presence of Bryan Cranston in the lead role and to the raw, keenly observed screenplay by writer/director Vince Gilligan. And really, if the sight of a doughy, middle-aged man clad only in worsted-weight socks, loafers, tighty-whiteys and a rubber apron doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know why you’re reading the TV Club …

but hated the title:

… Breaking Bad is a horrible, horrible name for a TV show. It’s not made any better by being included (and explained) in an actual line of dialogue from the show.