On this website, I have openly gushed about my unfettered love of the late television show Breaking Bad. I’ve made my feelings openly known, no need to beat a dead horse (or mow down dead neo-Nazi’s with a modified machine gun). When I first heard of a developing spin-off to my departed Sunday night babysitter, my reaction was nothing more than casual amusement. Really? They’re actually going to create a series around Saul, Walter White’s fast-talking, ambulance-chasing, lapel-ribbon wearing attorney? That’s got to-be a joke, one of those things created by the internet to increase clicks. That can’t be real.
The spin-off can be a dangerous thing. Does any one remember Joey? Actually Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan has a little experience swimming in these waters. In 2001, he co-created The Lone Gunmen, a spin-off of the much beloved The X-Files. The show followed a trio of computer hacking conspiracy geeks. It also, in an odd way, kind of eerily predicted the attacks on the World Trade Center months before 9/11. Fox gave the gunmen thirteen episodes before shutting the project down. It aired at a time, as Peter Griffin once noted in Family Guy, when Fox was treating its programming like it was at the losing end of a firing squad.
Yet, Better Call Saul is a vastly different project, As Eric Konigsberg points out in New York Magazine, Better Call Saul is the first spin-off of “this golden age of premium cable.” The cynic in me wonders if the motivation to create any spin-off is to suckle the last remaining drops out of a drying nipple or to create another nipple in a bosomy breast.
There is certainly plenty of milk left in the painted deserts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Breaking Bad’s final season was met with phenomenal literal and critical success. No one can fault Vince Gilligan for wanting to bank on that success. He is in television, for crying out loud. Yet, Gilligan now walks on a road as treacherous as one leading towards a desert gun battle. In Breaking Bad, Gilligan created, essentially, the perfect television show. Shows, even the best ones, tend to have peaks and valleys. There are moments of sheer brilliance and moments of head-scratching mediocrity. Shows often stay past there prime, occasionally way past. Even about the most critically acclaimed shows, you will hear people react: “I couldn’t really get into it.” I’ve heard this a few times about another culminating AMC staple, Mad Men (blasphemy, I know). None of these things happened with Breaking Bad. The show never lost steam, getting better with each episode until that heart-breaking curtain call. Trying to add to such perfection can be challenging; just ask the creators of The Godfather Part III. And doing so with Saul Goodman as your front man?
In Breaking Bad, Goodman often represented necessary comic relief. He was an important character, but created, in part I think, to soften that always-mounting tension surrounding Walter White. He certainly isn’t complex enough to carry an entire series. After watching the first two episodes of Better Call Saul, I am beginning to find this statement naive.
In Breaking Bad, we watched Walter White’s demise, never knowing how it would end. For all we knew, White could have ended up sitting on a beach somewhere cancer and Jesse free. In Better Call Saul, we are never given this luxury. The opening moments, shot in haunting black and white and free of dialogue, show a defeated Goodman managing a Cinnabon in Omaha (a move the mall-centric restaurant franchise is fully and smartly embracing. All advertising is good advertising). Goodman himself predicted this future state during the final opus of Breaking Bad, as he mentally prepared for his new life away from Walter White and away from his very own lucrative legal practice. Following this glimpse into the reality of Saul Goodman’s life AH (After Heisenberg), we are boomeranged back to a New Mexico courtroom where a younger and frazzled Jimmy McGill is preparing a defense for an even younger set of clients. Chosen foreshadowing was one of the grandmaster elements of Breaking Bad. You received a glimpse of the future, a tease to what was to come, but only a brush stroke; the painting was complete, but you still needed to step back to see the whole canvas.
Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul will be chronicling a mutation. In Breaking Bad, viewers saw Walter evolve from Mr. White to Heisenberg, the man in the black hat. In Better Call Saul, we will watch a New Mexico lawyer transform from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman. It will be the rise without the fall. We’ve seen the fall. Now we see the preceding rise, how Saul Goodman went from broke, under-confident and muddled to become the attorney to the malevolent stars.
It is a bit ironic that an actor primarily known for comedy would go on to create arguably the most memorable dramatic character in television history. Bryan Cranston’s (who was Walter White, is that necessary to point out?) most notable roles BH (Before Heisenberg) were as the patriarch of a dysfunctional household on Malcolm in the Middle and as Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld.
While Cranston’s early success coming primarily in comedy was likely that of chance (he’s an actor, not a comedian), Bob Odenkirk’s roots run deep in comedy. Odenkirk has spent an entire lifetime in the trenches of television comedy. Over the last quarter century, Odenkirk has worked as an actor, comedian, writer, director and producer. He has written for Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show and The Dennis Miller Show. To my own utter surprise and delight, I learned that he created Matt Foley, the motivational speaker who resides in a van down by the river, that Chris Farley would so colorfully bring to life. For HBO, he created Mr. Show with Bob and David along with David Cross, from Arrested Development fame. He has an impressive resume, but as a performer he has yet to tackle such a challenge as carrying a dramatic vehicle, especially one so luxurious and with such lineage. With all apologies to Odenkirk, it is a little like taking the keys to a new Aston Martin and handing them over to Matt Foley.
Odenkirk actually sat down with Cranston to get some advice on dealing with the pressures of performing at such a high level: “He talked me through a week and how you prepare and just how to look at it, which is basically like an athlete training for a competition — like you’re constant measuring out your effort and building up to the moment when you’re on screen,” says Odenkirk.
Those involved with the production have been attempting to separate Better Call Saul from Breaking Bad. I’d be shocked if we catch a glimpse of Walter White in the series, although wouldn’t it be fun to see Walter and Skylar waiting in line in front of Jimmy at Los Pollos Hermanos. This attempt at separation is not helped by Breaking Bad’s legion of fans that want just one more ride on the Walter White roller coaster as well as the fact that the premiere episode’s climatic event was the return of a Breaking Bad bad-guy alumnus.
I think fans of Breaking Bad can appreciate the differences in Better Call Saul while enjoying the same nuances seen in Breaking Bad that are also seen Better Call Saul. These include (but aren’t limited to) the sweeping shots of desert brutality, the stimulating visual storytelling and Mike Ehrmantraut’s even temperament.
Pushing aside that it is a prequel to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul has some obvious things going for it. First off, it’s brought to you by the guys who made Breaking Bad. That’s a great resume builder. Secondly, I like Bob Odenkirk. I always have. He’s funny, and the more I see of him, the more I get a feel for his depth. While he has never played (as an actor) at this level, I think his experience will benefit him. Although it’s his first trip down this road, he’s been in the driver’s seat for a long time. Like a new Aston Martin, I’m excited to see what he can do.
Will the show live up to Breaking Bad? I think this is an unfair comparison, but an intriguing aspect of Better Call Saul. The two will be compared endlessly, there’s no doubt. Will fans of Breaking Bad be alienated by Better Call Saul or be stimulated by it? The answer to the question will make or break this project. As Odenkirk told New York Magazine, “I feel like Vince [Gilligan] painted himself into a corner because he likes to torture himself. He’s asking, ‘What problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve?’ That, to me, is completely: I got nothing here.”
If becoming Saul Goodman is nearly as captivating as becoming Heisenberg than Gilligan will have once again created television treasure. I, for one, am willing to watch him try.
I leave you with Saul Goodman’s theme song, sung by Junior Brown. Because we should all have a theme song sung by Junior Brown: