When an acclaimed TV drama comes to an end, the showrunner of said acclaimed TV drama is in a unique position. For the first time in years, their schedule is wide open. Often, various people are fighting to give them lots of money to create something. And pretty much everyone agrees that whatever they do next will be considerably less impressive than the acclaimed TV drama they just ended. Some showrunners get weirder, embarking on complex, fascinating, self-indulgent passion projects: Think David Simon and Treme, or David Milch and John From Cincinnati.
When Lost ended, Damon Lindelof started writing movies; when Battlestar Galactica ended, Ronald D. Moore helped to kickstart a spin-off prequel before working on a series of failed pilots. (Both men have new TV shows on the horizon.) And after the Sopranos ended, David Chase just stopped doing anything, essentially dropping the mic on a brilliant career before briefly picking it up again for his own self-indulgent passion project.
And then there’s Vince Gilligan. Breaking Bad ends on Sunday with a series finale written and directed by Gilligan, and he already has his next project lined up. Yesterday came news that Gilligan has signed a deal with CBS to produce a new cop drama, Battle Creek. (Like Moore, Gilligan is helping to launch a spin-off prequel.) It’s difficult to think of any phrase more diametrically opposed to everything Breaking Bad represents than “CBS Cop Drama.”
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Battle Creek could be good – and, at a moment when cable dramas are both better and often more successful than their network brethren, Gilligan’s show could actually expand the horizons of the contemporary broadcast drama. Battle Creek actually predates Bad for Gilligan; he penned the original script way back in 2002. And it’s worth remembering that Gilligan’s roots are in network: He cut his teeth on The X-Files, one of the most influential dramas of the ’90s. This year has seen an especially bountiful bumper crop of X-Files-ish TV shows: The Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. all started strong with pilots that set up long-running mythology arcs while also promising mission-based procedural stories.
Battle Creek appears to be designed in a similar mold. Structurally, it’s a cop show, starring two detectives in Michigan with different perspectives on crimefighting. But those two perspectives go deeper than the typical “crusty old badass/fresh-faced newbie” dichotomy. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it’s a matter of very different worldviews: “Are cynicism, guile and deception enough to clean up the semi-mean streets of Battle Creek, Michigan, in the face of a complete lack of resources, or is the exact opposite true – it takes naivete, trust and a boatload of resources?”
That’s a decidedly deeper take on the cop drama than most recent procedurals, which usually begin and end with the concept of “Brilliant Crimesolver with TBD Eccentricity.” And the show is arriving on CBS at an adventurous moment. Between Under the Dome and Hostages, the network appears to be searching for a buzzy hit to run alongside the NCIS/CSI parade. The fact that Battle Creek already has a 30-episode order means that Gilligan and Shore can plot forward from the pilot, a rare gift for writers on network television (although it’s becoming less rare by the minute.)
Although Gilligan may direct the pilot, he’s not going to be the showrunner – that honor belongs to David Shore, who made pretty much the defining “Eccentric Crimesolver” network series with the medical procedural House. It could be that we’re witnessing Gilligan transitioning into J.J. Abrams empire-building – that, like Abrams after Alias, he’ll now be the guy who creates TV shows and then lets other people guide them forward. It’s possible that Gilligan will spend his first few years post-Breaking Bad genially waving his TV-auteur pixie dust over seven or eight TV shows. Which is not a bad worst-case scenario.