How a writer went 'Bad'

Special to The Times

Leave it to the screenwriter to best describe himself: "Not ugly, but not handsome. Tall, but not tall enough to play basketball. About 20 pounds overweight."

His name is Vince Gilligan, 40 and "a bit of a straight arrow, maybe to the point of being a little boring." But Sunday night on TV, a version of him decides whether to kill a man.

Welcome to "Breaking Bad," Gilligan's creation and one of the few buzz-worthy new shows of a mostly tepid TV season. Airing Sundays on AMC, which after winning a Golden Globe for "Mad Men" is beginning to look like the Little Movie Channel That Could, Gilligan's series has thus far drawn rave reviews and already a bit of a cult following -- the pilot doubled AMC's adult viewership, and the series' second episode was the most downloaded show on iTunes the day after it aired.

For the unfamiliar, "Bad" is about a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher (played by Bryan Cranston) who, after finding out he has lung cancer and two years to live, decides to cook crystal methamphetamines to illegally secure his family's financial future. It's a decision that nearly gets him killed at the get-go and may now force him to kill someone.

"At the end of the day it's never going to be 'ER' or 'CSI,' it will never have that broad appeal," says Gilligan, a writer on "The X-Files" for seven seasons. "I love cable because you get to do those niche-y stories that aren't necessarily for everybody but that please a relative few in a big way, an audience that wouldn't be necessarily satisfied by what they see on a network."

Among the new network fare offered this season? The recycled ("American Gladiators"), the repackaged ("Cashmere Mafia") and the ridiculous ("Moment of Truth").

Of course, likable TV characters doing bad things isn't new territory, either. On HBO, Tony Soprano spent years whacking people before we cut to black, while on Showtime we currently find a widowed, dope-dealing housewife on "Weeds" and a bloodthirsty serial killer on "Dexter."

"What I like about Walt," argues Gilligan of his "Breaking Bad" protagonist, "is that he's an entirely self-invented bad guy. Dexter was born a killer and Tony Soprano was raised from an early age to be a mob boss, but Walter's desire to 'break bad' derives, at least in part, from an over-familiarity with being good."

Sound familiar, Mr. Gilligan? "Yes, maybe in some small way Walt is my alter-ego," he admits. "[But] aside from tearing the government tags off of mattresses, I've never actually broken the law. But there's always that fascination in wondering what it must be like to live one step ahead of the police.

"And while I'm not bored or desperate enough to take that walk on the wild side, it's always fun to write about."

And fun to watch -- especially when considering some of the alternatives.

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