Sundance 'Writers' Room' goes backstage at 'Breaking Bad'

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Forget the stars. The people I always wanted to talk to were the writers and producers who created the fictional worlds that became long-running TV series.

One of the great pleasures of this job in my earlier days on the beat was going out to California, breaking away from my colleagues on the press tour and spending a long afternoon in a producer's bungalow on a studio backlot as he or she told me and my tape recorder how their visions became prime-time series.

Whether it was Steven Bochco talking about "Hill Street Blues" or Larry Gelbart explaining the history of "M*A*S*H," I always felt as if I was being let in on a great secret as to how entertainment, culture and sometimes even art was improbably created in the hyper-commercial world of Hollywood.

I felt some of that excitement last week in screening the premiere episode of "The Writers' Room," a series debuting Monday night at 10 on the Sundance Channel. Hosted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash, this unpretentious and utterly engaging production features a roundtable conversation with the writers and producers of prime-time series.

It opens Monday with "Breaking Bad," the acclaimed AMC series that begins its final season Aug. 11. Other series featured include "Game of Thrones," "Dexter," "American Horror Story," "Parks and Recreation" and "New Girl."

Eight writers and producers from "Breaking Bad," the drama about a high school chemistry teacher who turns to making and selling methamphetamine, join Rash at a conference table. The set is made to look like — guess what? — a writers' room. Think corkboard on the wall with lots of colored Post-it notes, whiteboards filled with lines and arrows, and posters of the show.

Call it basic-cable cheap. But it's not the set that matters. It's what the people sitting on the set have to say.

Vince Gilligan, creator and showrunner of the series, has the best tales to tell. When he was a writer on "The X-Files," I counted him among Hollywood's best storytellers. He's not nearly as good on camera, but he does just fine in taking viewers backstage in the creation and making of "Breaking Bad."

The series that has won 43 Emmys came about, Gilligan says, after he read an article in The New York Times about a man making meth in a New York City apartment and getting children in the building sick from the fumes.

Gilligan says he and Thomas Schnauz, a friend from film school who worked with him on "The X-Files," had been out of work for two years since the end of that Fox series when he came across the Times article.

"We were both bemoaning the fact that we were jobless, close to penniless and close to being without Writers Guild insurance," Gilligan says.

"So it was these two angry old men talking to each other, saying, 'Did you see what that SOB did to these little kids?' " Schnauz, a writer on "Breaking Bad," adds, finishing Gilligan's thought. "And somehow that clicked in Vince's brain."

Gilligan shares the shorthand he used to try and sell the series to potential network and cable buyers: "The pitch was always, 'We're gonna take Mr. Chips, and we're gonna turn him into Scarface.' "

And it wasn't an instant winner: HBO, FX and TNT all took a pass before Gilligan found a buyer at AMC.

"I can't believe the show ever made it on the air," Gilligan says. "It has all the ingredients of failure."

Bryan Cranston, who won three best actor Emmys as Walter White, the teacher who becomes a drug dealer to provide for his family after finding out he has inoperable lung cancer, says he saw nothing but a winner when he got a look at Gilligan's script for the pilot.

"I just knew that what I read was brilliant and remarkable," he recalls. "And I got my agents to move the meeting up. … I wanted to be one of the first, because I know other actors would smell the meat and want to chomp down on it. I wanted to get there and lift my leg on the material and mark it with my scent."

Like many actors, Cranston, who also holds the title of producer, is a bit of a camera hog. And some of his lines sound a little rehearsed — or, at least, sculpted to attract attention, like the statement about lifting his leg. I do wish some of the other producers and writers seated at the table — such as Peter Gould or Moira Walley-Beckett — had played a more prominent role in the discussion.

But for all the staging and editing involved, such roundtables work best when the conversation feels organic — and that means not all eight members will have equal airtime. And not all will have something great to say. Some dominate, and some pull back in such situations. And as dominant as Cranston tries to be, he does seem accepted as a working member of this group — not a face added to the lineup for a little star power.

Rash, who in addition to being a screenwriter is also comedian and actor on NBC's "Community" sitcom, can be a little camera-precious. He also seems given to the quip rather the question that will take the conversation to a deeper level.

To his credit, Rash does try to drill a little deeper, at one point asking Gilligan whether the series is trying to comment on the "disappearing middle class" in America.

I believe it does offer such commentary — if not an outright meditation on that disturbing state of American life. Further, I believe the series finds a deep source of psychic energy by tapping that current of shared anger and economic anxiety in the audience. It's the same current that "Weeds" tried to address on Showtime.

"I honestly think we get a lot of credit for giving this kind of social criticism or commentary," Gilligan says. "But for me personally, I think it's this story of this one guy. … I was about to turn 40, and I was already thinking, 'God, I'm going to have a hellacious midlife crisis. So, what about doing a story about a guy having an end-of-life crisis?' But I studiously avoid putting politics into anything I'm working on."

A better interviewer might have said, "I wasn't really asking about politics. I was asking about the anxiety and anger of middle-class people today who find themselves after a lifetime of working hard not having the money to protect their family — just like Walter White. And didn't you say earlier that you and Tom had been out of work for two years and were anxious and angry about being 'almost penniless' and about to lose your health insurance? Do you think some of that might have found its way into the world you created?"

Instead, Rash lets it drop and asks Gilligan whether he was surprised that the show was a hit.

In three decades of interviewing men and women who create TV shows, I have never heard anyone say they knew their show was going to be a hit.

Maybe that's the difference between a one-on-one, in-depth print interview in a backlot bungalow with only a handheld recorder between reporter and producer, and a prime-time cable TV show staged in front of a bank of cameras.

Still, I wish Rash had pushed Gilligan — in a polite way, at least.

But I'll be back in "The Writers' Room" in weeks to come. Probably not for "Parks and Recreation" (Aug. 5) and "New Girl" (Aug. 19). But definitely for "Dexter" (Aug. 12), "Game of Thrones" (Aug. 26) and "American Horror Story" (Sept. 2).

Here's hoping the host goes a little deeper as the series goes on.


"The Writers' Room" debuts at 10 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel.