Vince Gilligan created the groundbreaking TV show Breaking Bad, which recently finished its final season. The series was about a high-school chemistry teacher dying of cancer and his descent into drug-dealing and crime.
It earned critical raves and rabid fans — and made us wonder about the pop-culture influences on the man behind it. So, for the occasional Morning Edition series Watch This, NPR's Steve Inskeep talked to Gilligan about what he's watching on television when he's not too busy making it.
"Black Mirror is a show created by a writer named Charlie Brooker who I was not at all familiar with until I enjoyed being in the U.K. a few months back doing a press tour for Breaking Bad," Gilligan says. "And he has created this show that is an anthology series, inspired by The Twilight Zone, and it's very dark and very dystopic, and it is fascinating."
The show is so dark, in fact, that one episode's plot is not easily discussed on family-friendly radio. But Gilligan says he likes this kind of story when it's well done.
"The idea of it is so outrageous that you hear it, and you say to yourself, 'That sounds like a terrible TV show,' " he says. "Which, by the way, is what people said about Breaking Bad when it first went on the air. I can't tell you how many people said, 'Oh, a show about a guy who's dying of cancer so he decides to cook crystal meth? Ugh, that sounds terrible.' So I feel a kinship with Charlie in that respect."
Garth Marenghi's Darkplace
Gilligan's second pick is another British show, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which airs in the U.S. on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.
"[In the show] there is a horror writer, sort of a British Dean Koontz or perhaps a Stephen King type — except very much a blowhard and very much an inept writer, not like those gentlemen," he says. "And the premise of the show is that years ago, in the early 1980s, he paid for his own television series, called Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, and he wrote it and starred in it. And it's just so ludicrous — the acting is so terrible and over the top, the editing is awful, the special effects are just laughable, and the whole thing is ridiculously bad on purpose. It is a laugh riot. I love that show."
These so-called "old episodes" are interspersed with interviews with the fictional horror writer and his co-star.
"It takes a great deal of talent to make something that bad, and that is what's so brilliant about it," Gilligan says.
From well back into television's archives, Gilligan's last choice is a '70s show produced by Jack Webb. It focuses on two Los Angeles paramedics played by Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe.
"There's something about all the Jack Webb-produced shows — he's like a hand-puppet man operated by off-screen operators," he says. "There's a very stiff, formalized delivery to the speech patterns, and it's not like reality. And yet it fascinates me."
Beyond merely liking the show, Gilligan recently discovered a coincidental personal connection to it.
"I was watching an episode, and I jumped out of my chair at home because I'm watching the Squad 51, the ambulance ... in Emergency! driving along this very familiar stretch in Burbank," he says. "And I realize, they are pulling up to the scene to assist a guy with chest pains on the very spot that our writers room from Breaking Bad was located!"
Gilligan quickly emailed the clip to all of his writers.
"That was one of the biggest moments of 2013 for me," he says.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Vince Gilligan created one of the more acclaimed TV shows ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "BREAKING BAD")
INSKEEP: "Breaking Bad" made a hero - or, rather, an anti-hero - of an ordinary man, a high school chemistry teacher who descended into drug dealing. Critics loved it. Fans obsessed over it. People who didn't watch had to listen to their friends and co-workers go on about it. And this morning, we're going to hear some of the surprising influences on the man behind it.
Vince Gilligan sent us the latest list of recommendations for our series Watch This.
Let me just begin by noting something about this list. Frequently, the list is all movies or mostly movies.
VINCE GILLIGAN: Yes.
INSKEEP: You went entirely for TV shows. Was that by design?
GILLIGAN: Well, it was not by design, I would say. I love movies, but I, unfortunately, have not been to the movie theater much, as of late. And...
INSKEEP: And even at home, movie is not the first thing that comes to mind to watch?
GILLIGAN: You know, I'm very lazy, when I turn on my television. I have a TiVo. I have a DVR, or whatever you call it, but I forget to set it. I just channel surf and I sit through the commercials. I am an advertiser's dream.
INSKEEP: So, we should assume, as we go through your list, that it's a given that you should be also watching the mix of commercials for Bounty or Geico or Capital One.
INSKEEP: All right. Your list includes a program called "Black Mirror." What is it?
GILLIGAN: "Black Mirror" is a show created by a writer named Charlie Brooker, who I was not at all familiar with till I enjoyed being in the U.K. a few months back doing a press tour for "Breaking Bad." And he has created this show that is an anthology series, inspired by "The Twilight Zone." And it's very dark and very dystopic, and it is fascinating
INSKEEP: We have a clip from one the episodes here. And it's hard to describe what's happening in this clip on a family radio program. A princess has been kidnapped. A video of her has been released on YouTube. And, in order to be released, the kidnapper is demanding that the prime minister do something really rather quite horrible, rather graphic. And this is the prime minister's advisor talking to him about his options.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This video came from YouTube.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What? Well, get it off there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We did, after nine minutes, but that was long enough for it to be downloaded, duplicated and spread.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's trending on Twitter.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So, what now? What's the playbook?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is virgin territory, prime minister. There's no playbook.
GILLIGAN: Can we describe, in family terms, what's going on?
INSKEEP: I'm just trying to think. The demand is for the prime minister to do something involving a pig.
GILLIGAN: Yes. Your viewers are pretty hip.
INSKEEP: They'll probably figure that out. So this is the kind of stuff you love, then.
GILLIGAN: When it's well done, yes. The idea of it is so outrageous, that you hear it and you say to yourself: That sounds like a terrible TV show - which, by the way, was what people said about "Breaking Bad" when...
GILLIGAN: ...it first went on the air. I can't tell you how many people said, oh, a show about a guy who's dying of cancer, so he decides to cook crystal meth - ugh, that sounds terrible. So I feel a kinship with Charlie in that respect.
INSKEEP: You have also sent us, on this list, another British program: "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace." What is that?
GILLIGAN: "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" is this wonderful show that I caught up with on the Cartoon Network here in the States. In the evenings, they give over their programming to something called Adult Swim. And "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" is actually not animated. It is a live-action show. There is a horror writer, sort of a British Dean Koontz, or perhaps a Stephen King type, except very much a blowhard and very much an inept writer - not like those gentlemen.
And the premise of the show is that years ago, in the early 1980s, he paid for his own television series, called "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace," and he wrote it and starred in it. And it is just so ludicrous. The acting is so terrible and over-the-top. The editing is awful. The special effects are just laughable, and the whole thing is ridiculously bad on purpose. It is a laugh-riot. I love that show.
INSKEEP: So you have this terrible horror writer who has found his lost gem from decades ago, and they're playing these so-called old episodes. I want to play a clip here. It's a hospital built over the gates of hell.
GILLIGAN: Yes. That's right.
INSKEEP: And you have doctors here, discussing the problem of a patient who mysteriously explodes. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now, I'm not about to tell the immediate family of the deceased that we're going to have to burn what remains of his body, in order to close the portals to another dimension. I just won't do it. This hospital has got a reputation which I intend to keep. I've yet to see any demons on the ward. And I'm particularly observant.
INSKEEP: That's pretty bad.
GILLIGAN: It's such a brilliant show. It takes a great deal of talent to make something that bad. And that is what's so brilliant about it.
INSKEEP: Can I just mention, Mr. Gilligan, that when I watched TV as a very, very small kid, one of the first TV programs I ever remember watching was a program called "Emergency!"?
INSKEEP: And I hadn't thought about it in decades, and here it is on your list, "Emergency!", with an exclamation point.
INSKEEP: What is it?
GILLIGAN: "Emergency!" and "Adam 12" and, of course, the original "Dragnet" were all shows produced by Jack Webb's production company, the wonderful Jack Webb, who, of course, starred in "Dragnet."
INSKEEP: This is the city. Yeah.
GILLIGAN: Yes, this is the city, you know. I carry a badge. My name's Friday. And "Emergency!" was this show that I loved as a kid, and I've caught up with, again recently, two paramedics in L.A. County played by Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe. And they are just driving around all the time saving people, and then bringing them to Rampart Hospital.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMERGENCY!")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's affirmative, Rampart, suspect diabetic acidosis.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I agree. Keep the ringers going and draw blood.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ten-four, Rampart.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Kathy's going to die?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No, sweetheart. She's not, not if we can help it.
INSKEEP: Oh, you could totally hear the Jack Webb there.
GILLIGAN: Yes, you can. It's - there's something about all the Jack Webb-produced shows. He's like a hand-puppet man...
GILLIGAN: ...operated by, you know, off-screen operators. There's a very stiff, formalized delivery to the speech patterns. And it's not like reality, and yet it fascinates me. But one last thing I want to say about "Emergency!".
GILLIGAN: I was watching an episode, and I jumped out of my chair at home, because I'm watching the Squad 51, the ambulance the paramedics truck in "Emergency!", driving along this very familiar stretch in Burbank. And I realize, they are pulling up to the scene to assist a guy with chest pains on the very spot that our writers room from "Breaking Bad" was located.
GILLIGAN: And I immediately ordered the discs off of the Internet...
GILLIGAN: ...because I wanted the most pristine DVD copy I can. And then I rip off the scene and email it to all my writers, because this is after we have wrapped production of "Breaking Bad." And I said do you recognize this location from the TV show "Emergency!"? And all of them flipped out. It was one of the biggest moments of 2013 for me.
INSKEEP: It's too bad you'd wrapped. You could have done some kind of tribute scene in "Breaking Bad" that somehow would've gotten to that corner.
GILLIGAN: I know. No kidding. It was the damnedest thing.
INSKEEP: Well, Vince Gilligan, thanks very much for offering your television picks here. It's been fun talking with you.
GILLIGAN: Oh, great talking with you, Steve. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "EMERGENCY!")
INSKEEP: Vince Gilligan's "Breaking Bad" is now out on DVD.
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR news. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.