Vince Gilligan has said in the past that when he was initially pitching his hit series, Breaking Bad to television networks, one executive told him it was the worst idea he’d ever heard.
It is, you have to admit, a bit surprising that one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed TV shows in a decade of remarkable television tells the story of a cancer-riddled high school teacher manufacturing methamphetamine in secret.
This is, as critics are fond of saying, the golden age of television. And writer and producer Gilligan, also the creator of the Breaking Bad spin-off and and prequel Better Call Saul, is one of the biggest creative forces in the industry.
“I feel stupid saying this now,” says Gilligan, with whom I’m sitting in a suite on the 44th floor of the Sofitel hotel. “But I had to be convinced to get into TV.”
In fact, it wasn’t so stupid. Twenty-five years ago, when Gilligan got a job writing for The X-Files, TV – as opposed to film – was looked down upon.
“TV used to be a mental anesthetic,” says Gilligan. In the ’90s, he had to work on the assumption that viewers were only seeing one in four episodes, making serialised, in-depth storytelling an impossibility. Now it’s the opposite.
“We’re not just allowed to tell deeper stories, we’re encouraged to,” says Gilligan. “Maybe that’s why it’s a so-called golden age.”
Streaming media has changed the way people watch TV, and opened the floodgates to bigger audiences, thus allowing risky prospects like Breaking Bad to flourish.
“Before streaming came along, things were looking pretty dire,” he says of the show, which first aired in 2008. “We had a core group of fans, but by around season three or four, it looked like we were about to get cancelled for lack of viewership.”
It sounds absurd that was has become a global phenomenon wasn’t attracting numbers. But that’s not to say people weren’t watching, particularly in Australia. When the finale of Breaking Bad aired in 2014, Australians accounted for 18 per cent of the episode’s illegal downloads.
“Well, it makes sense,” says Gilligan. “If there’s a quick and easy way to watch it, you’ll do it. A lot of the big companies are leaving a lot of money on the table. The infrastructure hasn’t caught up.” Nothing has changed, as anyone who tried to watch Game of Thrones this week can testify.
Gilligan is in Melbourne as a guest of the inaugural Series Mania, a three-day television festival being held at ACMI. The event celebrates the leaps and bounds the medium has taken as a vehicle for storytelling, and will premiere more than 20 new series from around the world in ACMI’s cinemas.
Acclaimed Australian director Glendyn Ivin’s Safe Harbour sees a group of friends at sea discovering a boat full of asylum seekers. Canadian drama Mary Kills People tells of an ER doctor offering euthanasia to private patients on the side. In Israeli drama Your Honor, a judge ends up on the wrong side of the law in an attempt to protect his son from the mob. TV drama simply doesn’t allow you to turn off your brain any more.
So what’s the secret to the global success of something like Breaking Bad? Is it the focus on anti-heroes? The moral complexity? The long-form character development?
“People are fascinated by villains,” Gilligan says. ‘There’s a certain visceral thrill we get watching these things as law-abiding citizens. It’s safe danger.”
Gilligan himself is not currently bingeing on anything quite so bleak.
“I watch Mash, Twilight Zone and The Honeymooners,” he says, a little embarrassed. “I’ve seen them all so many times before, I don’t have to engage as much. It’s comfort food.”
In an age of the Handmaid’s Tale and The Walking Dead, there’s nothing wrong with comfort food.