LOS ANGELES — Most television shows have a natural life span. They launch, try to stay on the air as long as possible and then end, usually as a pale imitation of how they started.
"Breaking Bad" has NEVER been like most television shows.
It launched in 2008 on AMC to critical acclaim but only a handful of viewers. Had it been a network show, "Breaking Bad" wouldn't have lasted the weekend. Because it was on cable, the series was given time to find an audience and that patience paid off.
This maverick TV series about an unassuming high school chemistry teacher who becomes a vicious drug dealer in five seasons has gone on to earn more than 100 awards nominations, including 42 Emmy nods with a record 13 nominations this year. It's been on the American Film Institute's list of the "Top 10 Programs of the Year" four times.
And, now, it has reached the end as the first of the final eight episodes airs tonight. Unlike so many TV programs that go gently into that good night, "Breaking Bad" leaves at its peak with fans and critics. Vince Gilligan, the man behind "Breaking Bad," admits that he has some regrets about facing the finale.
"I have no creative regrets," Gilligan says. "I have TONS of regrets that it's over. I'm very sad that it's over. It's a weirdly schizophrenic kind of feeling. I wanted it to go on forever. But I know from having worked in television that TV shows, just like milk, have expiration dates.
"The expiration date of a TV show is a lot longer than milk or sushi, but everything has a natural life span. If you artificially extend it, it's sad to see that. It would have been more creatively sad for me to see that happen with 'Breaking Bad.' It's better to end a little too soon than too late."
Gilligan's experience with television includes producing "The X-Files," "The Lone Gunmen" and "Harsh Realm" and as a writer on "Robbery Homicide Division" and "Night Stalker." He's seen success and failure, but no TV show that he's been involved with has redefined TV as much as "Breaking Bad." The idea of changing the character of the lead actor during the run of the series has never been done.
No one has been affected more by the show's critical praise than star Bryan Cranston. Before playing Walter White, Cranston was best known for his comedy work in "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Seinfeld." "Breaking Bad" gave him the opportunity to play a character who reluctantly enters into criminal activities based on his altruistic motive of making sure his family would be provided for in the future after he finds out he has lung cancer. By the end, he became a force of evil to be feared like no other character in TV history.
As Gilligan puts it, the plan was to take "Mr. Chips" and turn him into "Scarface."
Cranston saw so much potential in how the character would go from saint to sinner that he fought hard to win the role.
"I always embrace the moments that I was able to show his teaching acumen in the show. It was his one true passion besides his family, and it was the only chance in the show that's surrounded by muck and mire that he excelled and truly had a gift," Cranston says. "That being said, I think there comes a time in every teacher's life where the overwhelming impact of apathy that is facing them every day has to chip away at that passion and that desire. I think he was just at a point, now 50, where he was kind of beaten down a little bit.
"So he could have been 'Mr. Chips' maybe 20 years ago, but now he's not. His emotions were calloused over by the depression, and receiving this news of his eminent demise allowed that volcano of emotions to erupt."
Cranston approached the role with the idea everybody is capable of good or bad.
"We are all human beings. We are all given this spectrum of emotions, as complex as they are, and depending on your influences and your DNA and your parenting and your education and your social environment, the best of you can come out or the worst of you can come out. I think, if given the right set of circumstances, dire situations, any one of us can become dangerous," Cranston says.
That kind of depth that surrounds the series is why cast and crew have had a hard time saying goodbye. What made it a little easier was that Gilligan and the writers were told in advance they had 16 episodes to wrap up the show. Gilligan points out that some of TV's best loved shows — "Star Trek" and "Twilight Zone" for example — were never given the opportunity to do a series finale.
Gilligan offers no exact details about the ending but says that the final episodes stick to the mission established in the first episode — they've taken a good guy and turned him into a bad guy.
"We made a list of all the things we wanted to do. When you come up with an ending, the thing you have to do, as much as possible, is tell yourself to breathe. Just relax and know that there's no earthly way possible to please every last fan," Gilligan says. "I don't know what the legacy of the show should be, but I'd love to feel like all of us created something that will stand the test of time."
SHOW INFO "Breaking Bad," 9 p.m. today, AMC
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.