Breaking Bad is the story of a respectable fifty year old high school chemistry teacher who finds out that he’s dying of cancer and turns to a life of crime to secure his family’s financial future. The show, which airs on AMC, has many cinematic elements, including a main character that has a drastic transformation over time, something most television shows don’t do. In fact, most main characters have pretty much the same world view in the pilot episode as they do in the series finale, so presenting someone who changes so dramatically throughout the course of the series was considered very risky at the time. So how did such an unusual story get on the air?
Show creator Vince Gilligan said it all started with a gripe session with his friend, Tom Schnauz, about how hard it was to find good writing work. They had both been staff writers for The X-Files during the last seasons of that show, but hadn’t worked much since the series was cancelled. Tom happened to mention a New York Times article about a drug dealer who was arrested for cooking crystal meth in the back of an RV, and they started joking about giving up screenwriting and just traveling around the country in an RV cooking meth and making money.
As they were talking, the idea for a main character popped into his head—a middle aged man who transforms himself from a good man into a ruthless criminal. He then had to figure out why his character turns to a life of crime, and how he had the means to get himself into that world. So the idea for the story started with the main character and that characters transformation, which Gilligan describes as a transformation from ‘Mr. Chips to Scarface.’
“I had this full-fledged character, this good, law-abiding man who suddenly decides to become a criminal. I was so intrigued by the character that I didn’t really give much thought to how well it would sell, which is good because Breaking Bad is such an odd, dark story, it’s not easily sold.”
Fortunately, Gilligan had worked with a couple of people at Sony Pictures Television who had once bought a pilot script from him and nearly had it in the pre-production phase before CBS pulled out of the project. Despite this setback, the Sony executives said that they loved his work, and asked him to bring any new show ideas to them first. As it turned out, they loved the story for Breaking Bad, so they all began pitching the idea.
Despite their passionate efforts, Breaking Bad was turned down all over town. Executives at TNT loved it, but they couldn’t put a story about a meth dealer on their network. They asked if the main character—Walter White—could be a counterfeiter instead, but that didn’t fit Gilligan’s dark vision of Walt’s descent into the criminal world. HBO executives didn’t show any interest at all. FX liked it, and actually bought the pilot script, but later decided against doing the show. When AMC decided that they wanted to do the show, FX graciously let them buy the rights, and in February of 2007, AMC announced casting and production for a one hour pilot for Breaking Bad.
Now they had to cast an actor who could make Walter White remain a sympathetic character for as long as possible, even as he descended further and further into darkness. Though it was not immediately apparent to everyone involved in the selection process, Brian Cranston—who was best known for playing the father on Malcolm in the Middle—was clearly the perfect choice (he won three consecutive Best Actor Emmys for his role as Walter White). Cranston said he had no idea how intense and dark the story was going to get, but he did understand that Walt was a very unusual character for a television series:
“I did know when we first met that what he [Gilligan] was attempting to do had never been done in the history of television, is to start a character out one way—as you get to know them that way—and completely change that character into someone else.”
The story was originally to be set in Riverside, California, but setting the story and producing it in Albuquerque, New Mexico offered financial benefits, as well as some very visually interesting locations and beautiful skies. Five years after the pilot aired, critics continue to praise the show for its writing, directing, editing, and acting. A reporter for The New Yorker said, “Breaking Bad is an explicitly addictive series, full of cliffhangers, with a visual flair that is rare for television.”
The series fifth and final season was split into two 8 episode parts: the first half premiered in July 2012, and the second half will premiere August 2013.
Script Tease, by Dylan Callaghan