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Vince Gilligan on the essence of Breaking Bad
Jason Redmond.AP.Press Association Images
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
Created by Vince Gilligan, acclaimed US drama Breaking Bad centres around chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston). After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he turns to cooking crystal meth - with the help of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) - to make enough money to secure his family's future.
Despite a great deal of love from TV critics, Breaking Bad has enjoyed only a short run on both digital channel FX and Channel 5's 5USA.
However, here's some fantastic news: the first three seasons are now available on streaming service Netflix. To mark the occasion, Vince Gilligan opened up about his show.
In America these days, most of the stronger dramas - Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Dexter etc - are on cable TV rather than broadcast TV. Why do you think this split has come about?
That's a good question. I did work for seven years in broadcast drama on The X-Files and I don't think I'll ever go back to it. I have no snobbery about it, there's some excellent work being done on broadcast networks here in the States, but I'm too old now! There's a big difference between broadcast and cable in the number of episodes produced every season; typically, broadcast will produce between 22 and 25 episodes and cable is typically around 10-13.
We work our butts off on 13, but in network, the deadlines are so brutal. My hat is off to anyone still doing broadcast television here because the workload is crushing. That's why there's so much British television that I love. The original version of The Office is one of the finest examples of television ever made - of course that's down to the talent - but you can't leave out some of the other factors that made it a great show.
Ricky Gervais only had to produce six episodes per season; it's hard to keep the quality up, the more that you do. In addition, we're also allowed to do more edgier shows on cable. I am very grateful to the existence of cable for that reason; Breaking Bad wouldn't exist on broadcast television.
Which is more important to you - critical acclaim or audience numbers?
Well, since we have critical acclaim, and not audience, I would say critical acclaim! They're both important, certainly, and without an audience, all the critical acclaim in the world would not help, as we witnessed here in the States with wonderful shows like Freaks & Geeks and Arrested Development - shows of that sort have had critical acclaim, but not quite enough viewership to stay on the air.
I love what audience we do have - God bless every one of them for watching and enjoying the show. But I have to say the critical acclaim has been marvellous and has gotten us through some rough times in the early days of our series when we had even fewer viewers than we have now.
As Walt grows darker, do you think it's still possible - or even necessary - for the audience to sympathise with him?
That's a very good question, one that I think about a lot. In the early days, I worried very much about Walt being sympathetic. As the show has progressed, I have relaxed a bit and not worried as much about that. We had a great stroke of luck in casting Bryan Cranston to play Walt; he can play a very nasty, mean character who nonetheless you sympathise with.
Bryan Cranston has that ability - it's like magic. I don't know quite how he maintains a likeability to the extent that he does in playing Walter White who, as the series progresses, becomes a very unpleasant character at times.
I guess at this point, if we continue to understand that he has flaws as a human being and makes decisions out of pride and ego, as long as we understand why he does it, it is my hope that he'll remain interesting to the audience. At the end of the day, interesting will hopefully be enough.
Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston
Are you ever worried about the show becoming too dark?
Indeed I am. It occurred to me when I was writing the pilot episode that this is a very dark show indeed; a middle-aged man finds out he's dying of cancer before the first act break. It occurred to me that I'd better leaven it with as much humour as I could get away with, otherwise people would want to slit their wrists watching this thing!
The show is not a funny show, but there are moments of humour and we try to milk them for as much as we can get out of them. Characters are never intentionally funny. From time to time, not often, they're in situations that the writers and myself find humour in, and hopefully the audience does as well. But we do indeed look for humour wherever we can find it, because otherwise it would be a very grim show indeed.
How is work going on the final two seasons of Breaking Bad?
Work is going very well. We are working away on the last 16 episodes and we just finished Breaking episode five yesterday. We're starting on episode six; we started shooting the first of the episodes in Albuquerque - that was a lot of fun. It's just very frantic and very exciting and we're looking forward to doing the best job we can do on the last 16 and ending the series in a satisfying manner, in the right way.
Do you know how the show will end, and if so how long have you had that ending in mind?
I have had, for a couple of seasons now, hopes and dreams for the characters. I've had very broad-stroke ideas of how I want individual characters to end up. Having said that, I've had no hard and fast ideas about how things should end until this season, with the help of my six excellent writers.
The seven of us, putting our heads together for the past several months, have indeed come up with how we think the show's gonna end. That's what we're working towards, but we're still somewhat in the early days - we've outlined about the first third of the last 16 episodes. As it stands, we have a pretty good idea of where it's all going to end up.
Breaking Bad is available to watch on Netflix.
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