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Crisis incites change, from AMC's alarmingly dark dramedy "Breaking Bad" to the History Channel's hilariously ominous special "Life After People."

Published January 20, 2008 2:00PM (EST)

Remember the midlife crisis? It was all the rage 20 years ago. Suddenly confronted with their crow's feet and their irrelevance in a youth-dominated culture, 40-something men and women across the country joined the gym, dumped their spouses, purchased sparkly metallic-colored Japanese sports cars with sunroofs, and attended the Forum seminars in which they tearfully confessed that they'd been living like obedient livestock all these years (aggressively led to this realization, of course, by their overbearing, authoritarian Forum leaders).

These days, we're far too self-involved and far too aware of our status as suffering, braying, googly-eyed moo-cows to be susceptible to such a dramatic epiphany. Instead of waking up and smelling the shit hitting the fan after 35 or 40 years in the dark, we face down our demons and wrestle with our bad habits and tackle big, important existential questions at least once a day. The midlife crisis has been replaced -- by the midafternoon life crisis.

Here's how it works: At around 2 p.m. each day, the caffeine levels in our blood drop precipitously, while all of the blood in our brains is diverted to our digestive systems in order to tackle that burrito the size of a handbag we ate for lunch. At around the same time, we stop idly perusing our e-mail and come to the realization that we're not going to accomplish even half of we what set out to that morning. The stress of this realization, paired with our compromised physical state, creates the illusion that we cannot possibly continue to toil away at such a pointless job for another second (let alone another day!), which in turn causes our hands to sweat and our minds to race at the thought of wasting what little time we have left on Earth half-assing a bunch of meaningless, arbitrary tasks while steadily falling behind financially despite our best efforts to get ahead. Finally, we focus our merciless, under-caffeinated minds on our bossy spouses, our ungrateful children and our hopelessly self-involved friends (who, unbeknownst to us, are experiencing their own midafternoon life crises in sync with ours). As our disillusionment and disappointment and angst and fidgety stress grow, we feel a sudden urge to take action!

Three hours later, we quit out of YouTube, dust off the crumbs from our Very Special Emergency Glazed Donut, and go home with a stomachache vowing to get more work done first thing tomorrow.

Dancing in the dark
Now, I know what you're wondering: Does the midafternoon life crisis lead to real, lasting life changes the way the midlife crisis did?

The answer is no. While the midlife crisis led to a new job, a new body, a new wardrobe, a new condo and a brand new trophy wife, the midafternoon life crisis only leads to heartburn and hours of wasted time reading speculative psychological profiles of Britney Spears.

In fact, studies show that, like a pressure gauge that lets off excess steam to prevent an explosion, the midafternoon life crisis indefinitely delays the sort of sweeping epiphany that might incite an honest attempt to improve ourselves and our standing in life. (Of course, some researchers feel strongly that it's the increased consumption of glazed doughnuts that thwarts any attempt at self-improvement.)

Walter White, the lead character of AMC's latest original drama series, "Breaking Bad" (premieres at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 20), may be experiencing a midlife crisis, but he's determined to skip the soul-searching and handle his problems with all of the distracted, grabby mania typically used to tackle a midafternoon life crisis. Warning: Some spoilers ahead! Instead of telling his pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), that he can't stand teaching chemistry to bored, uninterested high school students and he wants to quit his afternoon job at the car wash, instead of letting her know that he's been diagnosed with lung cancer and he only has, at most, two more years to live, Walter (Bryan Cranston) gets an idea, the kind of idea that's about as carefully considered as the Very Special Emergency Glazed Donut: He'll go into business with one of his former students, Jesse (Aaron Paul), and make crystal meth!

This very bad decision soon brings a new kick to Walter's step. He seems temporarily liberated, his demeanor echoing the memorable words of Ellsworth, from "Deadwood": "I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker."

Even so, from the very start, Walter and Jesse are a match made in hell. While Jesse alternately swaggers and whines and can't wait to smoke their product, Walter seems determined to create the world's most responsible meth lab: "This is lab safety equipment," he pertly explains to Jesse. "We're also going to have an emergency eye wash station!"

And just when you think they might actually succeed in their efforts, just when you think this life as a meth dealer might be vaguely exciting and empowering for poor Walter, everything starts falling apart. The tragicomic kick of the pilot episode gives way, in the second episode, to an unrelenting sensation that there's no way out of this mess for him. Our minds race, our hands sweat and we ask ourselves: Does it pay for us to invest more than an hour or two of our viewing time on such a desperate, depressed, dying man?

Yes, dark dramedies about criminals struggling to live the good life are all the rage these days, but much like overrated indie bands and poorly written graphic novels that no one can shut up about, we're expected to think that these sad, desperate tales are exciting simply because they're edgy, even though they're ubiquitous at this point, even though we don't always like the characters and don't think it's hysterical when the dead body falls down the stairs or the neighbors come over just as our hero is trying to poison his boss. While Showtime's "Dexter" and "Weeds" are two of the obvious standouts in this category, the less compelling contenders include FX's "The Riches," Showtime's "Meadowlands" and FX's "Dirt." All have the same old poorly realized characters making the same zany, ill-considered mistakes that are supposed to have us rolling on the floor. It's like being forced to watch "Trainspotting" over and over again. These pathetic but lovable ne'er-do-wells just won't bloody grow up and live the straight life!

"Breaking Bad" falls into some of the same predictable traps: Partners in crime, bickering about what to do with a dead body? Sorry, that's not automatically funny, and there's a little too much of it here. Straight-laced chemistry teacher dad, getting high? Also not a recipe for instant laughs. And let's not forget the requisite body falling down the stairs. How many times have you seen that one? By the time Jesse plunges his hand into the toilet to save his crystal meth, I'm jonesing for a Very Special Emergency Glazed Donut.

But "Breaking Bad" shows serious promise nonetheless. About halfway through the second episode, Walter is panicking over the stresses of the drug trade while his wife is getting an ultrasound. Finally, she demands to know what his problem is, and he makes up a lie -- which only makes her more angry. Unable to take it anymore, Walter takes a deep breath, grits his teeth and turns to her:

"I haven't been myself lately, but I love you. Nothing about that has changed, nothing ever will. So right now, what I need is for you to climb down out of my ass. Can you do that? Will you do that for me, honey? Will you please, just once, get off my ass? I'd appreciate it. I really would."

Whether he's cutting the crusts off a sandwich for a drug dealer or lecturing Jesse on refusing to follow his very clear instructions, Walter is an undeniably great character: a cautious, careful man whose life is careening out of control. Bryan Cranston embodies Walter's average-guy rage with believability and restraint. While the darkness of the second and third episodes were a disappointment after the careful tragicomic balance of the pilot, it'll take a little time to see whether this series develops the right mix of comedy, thoughtful moments and tragic turns. With its imaginative take on a midlife (or end-of-life) crisis, let's hope "Breaking Bad" can avoid becoming just another empty, dark dramedy to add to the messy, growing pile.

Animal planet
Speaking of messy, growing piles, if you're wondering how planet Earth's midlife crisis might resolve itself, you really must tune in for the delicious hysteria of "Life After People" (9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 21, on History), a two-hour special that rides the wave of books and movies, like "The World Without Us" and "I Am Legend," examining what life on Earth might look like if human beings were to disappear or die off suddenly.

Here's what would happen first: The power would go out everywhere! Then, our pets would feel really lonely at home without us, staring out the window and wondering when we'll ever come home! (Um, but where are all the dead bodies?) Yes, this truly pleasing "television event" presents one juicy morsel of finely crafted sensationalism after another:

Voice-over: Food is rotting on supermarket shelves, home refrigerators become nothing more than containers for decaying food, but melt water from defrosting freezers may provide a temporary lifeline for some of the creatures we've left behind!

Cut to a lonely German shepherd, licking up water on the floor by a refrigerator.

Voice-over: What will be the fate of our family pets, once there are no humans left to care for them?

Behavioral expert Ray Coppinger: Right from the get-go, there's going to be a massive die-off of dogs ... They can't open cans, they can't get in the refrigerator. The family dog has got to get out of the house or he's going to die there!

(OK, hold it right there. Food is rotting on supermarket shelves, but dead bodies aren't rotting in homes across the globe? Fido may not be able to operate a can opener, but I bet he can rip his master's foot off and eat it for dinner, no problem!)

Voice-over: There are estimated to be 400 million dogs in the world, and 300 different breeds. But very few of them are suited to surviving in a life after humans!

Cut to fluffy handbag dog with a bow in its hair, looking a little desperate.

Voice-over: The smallest dogs probably won't last a week without us!

Coppinger: Dogs with really short legs, dogs with really short faces or long faces? I think that they're all doomed. They're not going to move well. They're not going to be able to search and explore.

Cut to an exhausted, limping bulldog, panting and looking around helplessly.

See, when people post letters about how bored and frustrated I must get watching so much TV every day, they really don't consider the sweet, nourishing delights of one-of-a-kind television events like this one. I mean, if exquisitely imagined gems like this don't give you a pure, raw thrill, then you don't have blood flowing through your veins.

Onward: Did you know that rats and mice are very dependent on people? How will they ever survive without our big boxes of untended Oreos? (Here we watch as a bunch of mice turn over some huge boxes of cereal and eat what's inside.) Did you know that, if we were all were vacuumed off the planet by invading aliens, leaving no trace behind, bears and deer might wander freely about the streets of New York City? Did you know that Hoover Dam would keep running normally for a couple years, but then mollusks would clog up its cooling pipes, thereby shutting down the generators?

Next, we see a CGI of the Eiffel Tower collapsing! Ominous chords! The narrator gasps: "Unchecked, nature's most powerful elements reclaim their supremacy on Earth!"

And then, my favorite part: "Chicago burns! San Francisco's stately wooden Victorians are now only useful as kindling! And just as it did during the time of the ancients, Rome is burning again!" That's it -- I want a job writing this stuff.

"Five years after people," we're told breathlessly, "the roads of the world are disappearing like a green map that spreads like some relentless monster!" Hmm. What exactly is so monstrous about a bunch of crappy pavement being covered in grass and moss? We're the assholes who paved paradise and put up a parking lot -- shouldn't we be comforted to see bridges falling into the water and tall buildings covered in kudzu and ivy? Wouldn't it represent justice, at long last, if tigers from the zoo were roaming the streets of San Diego?

Ultimately, "Life After People" is a magnificent testament to the immense self-centeredness of the human race. I'm sure all the animals will watch it at their annual "Smell Ya Later, Suckers!" Festival, and they'll have a good laugh and high-five over the sudden disappearance of their clumsy, hairless, self-congratulatory oppressors.

Midafternoon delight!
Uh-oh. Are you experiencing a midafternoon life crisis right now, as you read this? Do you now feel that your stately figure and clever mind are only useful as food for your little doggie, who probably won't survive on Earth without you -- that is, unless she eats your face off? Are self-loathing and inertia spreading across the pavement of your self-esteem like some relentless monster? Do you long to reclaim your supremacy at home and at work? Do you also long to dump out a huge box of Oreos and eat them right off the floor, like a hungry rat?

Well, don't be alarmed. Just stay calm, take a deep breath and relax: You don't need a new job, a new wife, a new condo and a new Japanese sports car with a sunroof. You can fall short of your own expectations, stay in debt and continue to trudge along like the suffering, braying, googly-eyed moo-cow that you are. All you need is a cup of strong coffee and a Very Special Emergency Glazed Donut, and the sweet sustenance of sugar and caffeine will automatically renew your commitment to maintaining your mediocre existence for your ever-shrinking balance of days on Earth.

Next week: I really will get to HBO's new therapy drama, "In Treatment," but right now, I need a doughnut. And late Sunday night, be sure to look for our weekly collaborative recap of "The Wire."

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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