Vince Gilligan is to nice as Lindsay Lohan is to crazy.
That s the kind of analogy that surfaces in every discussion about the showrunner of Breaking Bad which premieres its final eight episode run tonight. And that happy talk sells Gilligan and the show he created short.
Sure there s more than a grain of truth to this stereotype. Compared to television s other often prickly auteurs David Chase of the Sopranos David Simon of The Wire and Matt Weiner of Mad Men Gilligan is easy going. His go to adjective in describing someone he s fond of is sweet.
Most days it s just easier to be nice to people Gilligan admits and it bears more fruit even if I m not feeling like it.
Nice might get you a meeting but it doesn t create a show that must be included in any serious discussion about the best shows in television history. How exactly did Gilligan manage to take Walter White from Mr. Chips to Scarface Here s a look at the tactics and strategies that Gilligan used to morph an improbably dark idea into the greatness that is Breaking Bad.
(This is spoiler free about the current season until the freshly appended closing paragraphs which recap episode 509.)
Ignore Your Critics That is the single worst idea for a television series I ve ever heard in my life. That s the assessment of Michael Lynton CEO of Sony Entertainment when two of his production executives explained the concept for Breaking Bad. Without the benefit of hindsight that reaction isn t at all surprising. Cancer. Meth. Mr. Chips. Scarface. Breaking Bad makes The Sopranos seem like Everybody Loves Raymond. And in addition unbeknownst to Gilligan another show with a more palatable spin on the theme Weeds featuring Mary Louise Parker as a pot dealing suburban mom was already in production while he was trying to get Breaking Bad off the ground.
But ultimately none of that mattered. Lacking a better idea Gilligan soldiered on and landed a production deal with Sony Lynton s comment notwithstanding and a home at AMC which was attempting to establish itself as a force in original programming and thus open to taking a chance on a radical show.
Cast Against Type How do you cast a character like Walter White You find an actor who does dark maybe Kevin Spacey or John Malkovich or the best clone you can afford. What did Gilligan do He gave the part of Walter White to a guy best known as as a beleaguered dad on a modestly successful sitcom.
But Gilligan remembered Bryan Cranston not only from Malcolm in the Middle but from an X Files episode in which he pulled off the feat of making a racist seem empathetic. This gutsy decision made TV history.
Gilligan did it again a couple seasons later casting the normally outgoing Giancarlo Esposito he played Buggin Out in Spike Lee s Do the Right Thing as the reserved even repressed drug kingpin Gustavo Fring. In the episode Boxcutter Esposito is on screen for 10 menacing minutes and utters only five words Well Get back to work
Esposito considers that scene the crowning achievement of his distinguished acting career.
Second Guess Yourself If Gilligan refused to rethink his decisions Breaking Bad could be a very different and a far worse show. Jesse Pinkman played by Aaron Paul was originally supposed to die late in season one. In Gilligan s initial draft Jesse was little more a plot device providing Walt with a way into the meth business and a reason to feel guilty when he gets killed off.
But Gilligan instantly recognized the abundant chemistry between Paul and Bryan Cranston and he made Paul into the show s moral compass.
This change of heart also provided Bryan Cranston an inveterate practical joker with innumerable opportunities to yank his co star s chain.AMC Podcast Offers a Peek Inside the Brain of Breaking Bad Allen St. John Contributor An AMC Smackdown Mad Men's Don Draper vs Breaking Bad's Walter White Allen St. John Contributor