LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - How rough can life get for Walt White, a quiet chemistry teacher with a pregnant wife and a handicapped son, who becomes a crystal meth dealer after discovering he is dying of lung cancer?
Much, much worse when "Breaking Bad" begins its second season on U.S. cable channel AMC on Sunday.
But actor Bryan Cranston, who won an Emmy last year for playing Walt, says the extreme -- and often darkly hilarious -- plot has plenty of relevance to viewers.
"I think the story is very relatable in this economic climate where people find themselves without health insurance, without a job and wondering what they are going to do and how they are going to provide for their family," Cranston said.
The title comes from a southern U.S. saying "to break bad," which is used to describe people who have strayed from a straight and narrow path.
The second season sees Walt becoming ever more immersed in the ruthless drugs underworld he has entered in a bid to secure the financial future of his family after his death.
Cranston, 52, shaved his head and dropped 16 pounds in weight last year after his character started chemotherapy for inoperable lung cancer.
But the actor, best-known previously for playing the very different dad, Hal, in the TV comedy "Malcolm in the Middle", said he is not shedding more weight.
"I didn't want to go any further because it is a very physically demanding show, and emotionally draining, and I needed to stay strong," he said.
Walt White's decision to use his chemistry skills to cook up and sell crystal methamphetamine -- one of the most highly addictive drugs -- has stirred controversy.
"I don't expect audiences to condone Walt's actions, just to accept why he is doing it. Men are wired to try to protect their family. It wasn't hard for me to say, 'If I was given a year and a half to live, what would I do?'
"The fact that it is crystal meth is just coincidental. If Walt were a mathematician, he would be counting cards in Las Vegas. If he were an art historian, he would be forging paintings or doing something else that allowed him to make this kind of money in a year before he dies," Cranston said.
"Breaking Bad" attracted about 1.4 million viewers per episode last year on AMC -- also the home of Emmy-winning advertising drama "Mad Men -- and has been sold to 10 nations overseas, including Australia, Israel and South Africa.
The two series reflect the strides made by smaller U.S. cable channels to establish themselves as a home for often edgy drama in a field previously dominated by HBO with shows like "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos".
Cranston was looking for a change of direction when the dysfunctional family comedy "Malcolm in the Middle" ended its run in 2006 after almost seven years.
"In this show, I am a good guy who does bad things. My job is to bring out Walt's humanity and hopefully the audience will embrace the man for who he is," said Cranston, who also directs the "Breaking Bad" season opener.