Unless you're reading this to kill time until Senior Swim at the Y, you're probably not used to tuning into AMC (formerly American Movie Classics). So if you flip past and see a man wearing just white briefs and a gas mask barreling through the desert in a Winnebago, no, your eyes aren't deceiving you, and no, that's not a deleted scene from "The Graduate."
It's "Breaking Bad," AMC's new original series premiering in January. If the show's premise— a high-school chemistry teacher starts dealing crystal meth—sounds odd for the channel that once specialized in Cary Grant retrospectives, well, that's the whole point.
AMC has reinvented itself as the next powerhouse for cutting-edge programming, and it's had quite a run of beginner's luck. Its first series, "Mad Men," premiered in the summer to justifiably rapturous praise, and earned two Golden Globe nominations (including one for its leading man, Jon Hamm). The network owes its success to what could be called the HBO formula: attracting top-notch talent and giving them a wide berth. "When I pitched the show they said, 'I don't know what this is.' But they trusted me," says "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner, a former "Sopranos" scribe who originally pitched the show to none other than HBO. "Bad" star (and "Malcolm in the Middle" alum) Bryan Cranston was equally surprised by the freedom. "I've been on shows where a script is sent in for approval and you get pages of changes back," he says. "The comments we get back could fit on a Post-it."
The goal, obviously, is to create TV that's so good, viewers will find it even in a place as unlikely as AMC. But if that fails, the network isn't above resorting to a little eye candy. Says Cranston: "You put me in a pair of tighty-whities, you're giving the people what they want." Mr. Cranston, you are trying to seduce us. Aren't you?