Spin-offs are inherently a tricky proposition. The idea is to continue the lifespan of a popular show by taking one (or more) of the characters and placing them in an altered context. What often ends up happening is that the original show’s charm fails to carry over, or a minor character that was useful for spicing up a scene in an ensemble simply can’t carry the weight of an entire show on their own (Joey, the ill-fated Friends spin-off, springs to mind).
The approach is easier to pull off in comedy (The Jeffersons, Frasier) or genre work (Angel, the multiple Star Treks) where audiences are more willing to suspend disbelief for a goofy scenario. Then there are the various Law & Orders, CSI’s and NCIS’s, but these are really procedurals in which the characters and settings are interchangeable. Otherwise, the list of successful drama spinoffs is short.
Which is why it is especially crazy that Vince Gilligan, the showrunner behind Breaking Bad, would attempt to make a spin-off from his instant classic series. Not only does Gilligan have to go up against the poor track record of spin-offs in general, he also has to follow up one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved dramatic series of the past decade. As a former staff writer for The X-Files, he also must have remembered mentor Chris Carter’s several failed attempts to spin-off that show.
What is perhaps most amazing then, is that so far, Gilligan is delivering the goods with Better Call Saul on AMC. The network apparently agrees, as it renewed the show for a second season before a single episode had aired. The reviews have been almost unanimously glowing, and the first episode set a record for a basic cable premiere with 6.9 million viewers.
Part of the reason for Better Call Saul’s success has been in sticking with the slow-burn strategy that has become the hallmark of “quality TV” in the past decade or two. At one point in development, the idea was pitched as a half-hour comedy, focusing on star Bob Odenkirk’s formidable comedic chops, but the decision to keep Saul as a ridiculous character in a deadly serious world was the right one. The show does not have the oppressive moral darkness of its predecessor — at least not yet — but it still feels very much as part of the same world as Breaking Bad.
For the first few episodes of Better Call Saul, it was difficult to determine whether the show was actually any good or if it was simply thrilling to see these characters again. Gilligan took his biggest chances with both the character of Saul Goodman and with Odenkirk as a lead actor, and so far both decisions are delivering him the best pay off. (Bringing back character actor Jonathan Banks as retired-cop-gone-bad Mike Ehrmantraut was also a wise move, as by the time his character exited the stage in Breaking Bad he had become one of modern television’s great violent-but-lovable curmudgeons, able to stand toe-to-toe with Al Swearengen or The Hound.)
For those familiar with Odenkirk’s history this should be no surprise. At 52, a bit paunchy and balding, and with a wonderful rasp in his voice, he’s certainly an unconventional (and inexperienced) leading man. But for those in the know, he has been a major player in comedy for nearly four decades. In 1987, he was hired as a writer for SNL and teamed with fellow rookies Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel. He appeared in the famous “Bad Idea Jeans” sketch and created Chris Farley’s immortal Matt Foley character. During Ben Stiller’s brief stint on the show the two were partnered together and would remain personal and professional friends.
The 1990s for Odenkirk were filled with projects that could all be labelled ahead of their time. His time as a writer on short-lived cult classic Get a Life segued into his role as writer-performer on the short-lived cult classic The Ben Stiller Show (where he was first teamed with David Cross). He was reunited with Smigel (and Louis CK) for the first few seasons of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He had a reoccurring role on The Larry Sanders Show as Larry’s agent, before joining Cross to start Mr. Show, a beloved but under-watched…you get it.
Then came Breaking Bad. Odenkirk quickly turned the character of Saul Goodman into something of a cultural touchstone. With his loud wardrobe, his tacky décor, and gravel-voiced, nonstop stream of bullshit, Goodman was introduced on Breaking Bad as a walking punchline about sleazy lawyers. But as the show grew, so did Saul. His appearance was revealed to be less a matter of actual bad taste and more a disguise he wore to ensure that he was underestimated. His extreme moral flexibility became less the sign of a truly amoral man and more of a pragmatist who lived in a dangerous world and didn’t have the luxury of passing judgment. As Jesse Pinkman famously said “We don’t need a criminal lawyer, we need a CRIMINAL lawyer.”
As has been discussed elsewhere, Better Call Saul, is very much treated like a superhero origin story, at least in the show’s early days. Dismissing the initial idea to have the character already in his established role, the show focuses on how a two-bit grafter from Cicero, Illinois named Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman (Jimmy switches his name because it helps his law career to sound like “a member of the tribe,” a fact established on the parent show). The catalyst in this case is not a radioactive spider or exposure to gamma radiation. Instead it is…well, we don’t know yet.
It might be his tense relationship with a drug lord’s right-hand man. It might be his struggle against a monolithic corporate law firm that Jimmy believes is cheating him and his brother. It might be his frustration with the system as he tries in vain to go straight as public defender. It might be the Kettlemens, who have embezzled $1.5 million from the state of New Mexico and are bribing Jimmy to keep his mouth shut.
It might be any or all or none of those things, but the decision to start Saul/Jimmy as a person who is trying to do the right thing is an important one to get the audience on his side. And that is particularly important with such an unconventional leading man. Odenkirk is undoubtedly talented and experienced. Whether or not he can helm a dramatic show in which he is an almost omnipresent lead remains to be seen. But the early signs are very promising.
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