On Sunday and Monday, as part of a 2-night event (isn’t everything these days?) AMC debuted Better Call Saul, a spin-off from its corner-turning drama series Breaking Bad based around Walter White’s kitschily corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman. For reasons that can only lead to spoilers, Better Call Saul is a prequel. Despite the unabated popularity of Breaking Bad and the character, there’s still the risk that a spin-off would damage the reputation of the programme, especially one that promotes to protagonist a character who mainly functioned as much-needed comic relief in one of the bleakest shows on television. AMC needn’t have worried because, as with all good long-form television, Saul grew into a much more rounded character as Breaking Bad went on (lest we forget that Walt started out as a clown) and it’s this version of the character that Better Call Saul has inherited. But in TV the odds aren’t against them (or as against them) since there’s nothing to say a spin-off show won’t be as good as or even better than the original.
As Steve Coogan self-reflexively observes in The Trip to Italy there are only ever one or two movies anybody ever quotes when arguing that sequels can be better than the original. Of course, TV has its go-to canon of superior spin-offs (Frasier and anything produced by Norman Lear, who understood the value of maintaining a universe of characters decades before Marvel Studios cottoned on to the idea) but the medium has a pretty good hit rate when it comes to franchises. TV is so generically nebulous (modern quality TV even more so) that it barely matters when a spin-off is more or less comic than its predecessor. In today’s TV when series take so long to hit their stride, their spin-offs may even pick up a show when the quality’s still good and perhaps before they’ve had time to peak. This seems to be what’s happening with Better Call Saul which reaches heights in its first two episodes that it took Breaking Bad (despite its calculated seriality) three seasons to achieve.
But what we’ve seen of Better Call Saul isn’t free of the pitfalls of spin-offs either. Gratuitous cameos from former cast members are one of the biggest obstacles to spin-offs being able to fly solo, and this one has them in spades. The re-appearance of gnome-faced security man Mike in the unfamiliar role of a car park attendant is not at all the problem. We know that history will draw the two men together, so we expect to see him enter Saul’s life somehow. But running into loose-cannon drug dealer and Walt’s former distributor Tuco in a coincidence that would make Dickens blush (plus members of his gang who also appeared in Breaking Bad) really is a step too far. Although some of this is the problem of prequels. Prompted by the none-too-subtle nods of the writers, we’re constantly anticipating moments from Breaking Bad instead of enjoying what the new ones have to offer. Despite the pleasing evocation of middle-America at its most moribund in opening black-and-white images recalling Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (which star Bob Odenkirk also featured in), it may have been a mistake to start at the end.
Aside from these distractions, which may have been the result of the writers sensibly trying to break Bad fans in, we’re left with a series whose name may one day be called without company. It will never completely transcend Breaking Bad, especially with original creator Vince Gilligan at the helm here too, but I’m confident we’ll soon be able to consider them separately. It’s possible to foresee Better Call Saul doing for the portrayal of lawyers what Breaking Bad did for scientists. Like Walt, Saul is not just the grumpy maverick we’re used to when confronted with so-called ‘antiheros’; he’s a criminal with a deviant moral code. That said, while we always suspected that Walt was acting out of pure self-interest (which was confirmed by the finale), there’s the irony that the earlier incarnation of villain Saul comes across far more nobly and altruistically than ‘good-guy-turned-bad’ Walt ever did. We can still think about Walt without making Saul any less interesting.
If I’m jumping the gun here, it’s because TV history tells me there’s nothing to worry about. When a spin-off is terrible it’s usually because there’s nothing left in the tank. Breaking Bad’s by-the-numbers finale always felt like it was holding something back. It was. A sequel. A prequel. A new modern monster.