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Let's make a deal: AMC's Breaking Bad is boldly back in play

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are volatile buddies in Breaking Bad.

Truly fearless actors are hardly a dime a dozen. In fact, they're one in a million. And Bryan Cranston is one of them.

He returns to the scene of his character's grimy existence Sunday night in the Season 2 premiere of AMC's Breaking Bad (9 p.m. central).

The network of Mad Men has a polar opposite in this dark, unkempt tale of a chemistry teacher turned drug dealer after he's diagnosed with lung cancer. It's his way of providing a long-term nest egg for his pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and their teenage son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), who has cerebral palsy.

Cranston, who gleefully absorbed any and all indignities as the doofus dad on Fox's Malcolm In the Middle, has shaved his head and removed every trace of that show's hapless Hal Wilkerson. This is Weeds on steroids -- or crystal meth in this case -- with Walt White (Cranston) and former student turned accomplice Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) wheeling and dealing with the most unsavory thugs New Mexico has to offer.

Season 1 of Breaking Bad, which premiered in January 2008, had just seven episodes and was seen by perhaps fewer people than Pluto Nash. Still, Cranston took home a surprise best actor Emmy, his first, after being nominated three times but never winning for Malcolm.

Breaking Bad is a bit better known this time, although there's no danger of it sweeping the country by storm. AMC also has ordered almost twice as many new episodes -- 13 -- giving the show more room to maneuver within a still relatively small universe that also includes Walt's brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, and his wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), a chronic shoplifter.

There's also the amoral drug dealer, Tuco (Raymond Cruz), last seen beating an underling to death in the presence of Walt and Jesse, who had just made a dropoff. All Walt wants is an eventual $737,000 in proceeds, which he figures will ensure his family's long-term future after cancer claims him. He may have a chemical imbalance, but he sure knows his way around a lab.

There's scant morality at work here, which Walt well knows. Still, his intentions are off-kilter honorable and his desperation palpable. Dying men aren't absolved of all guilt. But their sins perhaps merit an asterisk.

Cranston pours every ounce of himself into this role. Most actors wouldn't -- or can't. Creating an image is for others. This is a guy who will take chances and embrace whatever a role demands. The Cohen brothers someday need to build a movie around him. He'd deliver the soiled goods.

Pinkman also is terrific as the high-strung Jesse. And Gunn makes Skyler much more than a dreary, stay-at-home housewife. In Episode 2, she has a splendid, niceties-be-damned scene opposite Norris, whose DEA agent has his own macabre sense of humor.

Sunday's Season 2 opener ends with an irresistible cliffhanger that plays out in full on the March 15th episode. Where the series will go from there is anyone's guess. That's the beauty of Breaking Bad, which deals in just about everything but cliches.