Change, Decay, Transformation. The Breaking Brilliance of Vince Gilligan


For years, everyone’s been saying how great Breaking Bad is. I never fancied it. Drugs dealers, hit men, terminal illness…? Narr not for me. Then someone lent me the first season on dvd. Like everyone else, almost instantly, I was a hopeless addict. And it’s all Vince Gilligan’s fault.

Actually it’s not. Brilliant though the initial idea of the ultra-square teacher and his former pupil cooking meth in the back of a trailer, Gilligan is the first to credit the team of writers, performers, directors and producers around him. Maybe that’s why the writers’ room for that show was reportedly the happiest of all writers’ rooms.

‘One of the more unusual things about the Breaking Bad writers’ room is just how happy it is, as opposed to the writers’ rooms on shows like Mad Men, The Newsroom, and Girls, which have an incredible amount of turnover often attributed to the egos of the showrunners who want to maintain control (and all the credit). As such, there’s been virtually no turnover in the Breaking Bad writers’ room over six years, so now that the show has come to an end, you can expect that many of those writers — Peter Gould, George Mastras, Sam Catlin, Thomas Schnauz, Moira Walley-Beckett, Gennifer Hutchison, and John Shiban — will likely end up running their own shows soon.’  The 10 Most Influential Writers’ Rooms In Modern Television Drama History BY 08.27.13

The series shows how collaborative drama can be of top quality. Breaking Bad is not only full of crowd-pleasing suspense and plot twists, it’s also full of superbly drawn characters and complex interplay. Parts of it are almost Shakespearean in their depth. Not what you expect from a committee.

Gilligan started out writing for The X-Files. A fan of the show, he submitted a script which became the second season episode ‘Soft Light‘. He went on to write 29 more episodes, in addition to being co-executive producer of 44 episodes, executive producer of 40, co-producer of 24, and supervising producer of 20. He also co-created and became executive producer of the The X-Files spin-off series The Lone Gunmen but it only ran for one season of 13 episodes.

What makes me love the programme are all the obvious things already mentioned but underneath that, I love it because it is character-driven. Where other collaborative TV goes wrong is that it mistakes incidents for story. Writers sit round a table and each comes up with 6 or 7 funny or quirky incidents which they think will be good to see in whatever show they’re working on. But incidents are meaningless unless viewed through the eyes of characters we recognise as true. I reckon this is where Vince Gilligan’s genius comes into play. As show-runner, he must reject writers’ ideas, however funny or dramatic, unless they serve the characters. That’s how we get such a powerful story arc. In UK television soaps used to do this and often produced brilliant drama. Nowadays they focus on incidents alone; plane crashes, tram crashes, murders, explosions…. Each incident has to be a little more sensational than the last in order to keep the viewers viewing. Breaking Bad has dramatic incidents yes but only when they spring naturally from the characters and, because of that, even the quiet moments when nothing big is happening, even those are compelling. Every one of the characters in Breaking Bad is thought-out, cared about and true to life. Walter White says in the very first episode that Chemistry is all about change… decay… and transformation. That’s what characters are all about too.

It seems that Gilligan is applying the same approach with the follow-up Better Call Saul. The focus isn’t on sensational incidents but on the depth of the characters. Change… decay… transformation. Chemistry…. characters…. life.

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