What’s better than one bag of meth? Leading meth heads agree: two bags of meth. So why not take a beloved character from a great show and let him do more of his thing on his own show? That must be the thinking behind the recently announced Breaking Bad spinoff prequel, Better Call Saul, which will follow the legal misadventures of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). It's just the latest entry in a long legacy of classic spinoffs, like The Young Adventures of Little Omar Little and Tony Soprano: Back to Black. Er, wait.
There’s nothing that bodes well about Better Call Saul. Have we learned nothing from Summer 2013 and its long death march of flops? Haven’t we realized that if the forces of good don’t prevail, all excellent things will have their legacies marred by prequels, sequels, spinoffs, and reboots?
Have we learned nothing from Summer 2013 and its long death march of flops? Haven’t we realized that if the forces of good don’t prevail, all excellent things will have their legacies marred by prequels, sequels, spinoffs, and reboots?
If Saul returns to your TV, what are the stakes? Death can’t loom over his greasy long-part. We know he’ll make it out of whatever quagmire he loses his wingtips in because he has to live to meet Mr. White. This means whatever drama this presumably comedic series generates will have to come through the revolving door of Goodman’s office. It’s easy to see why the show was pitched in the first place. Each week brings a new client, a new case. The easiest shows to envision are the ones where the episodic format is embedded in the protagonist. But just because something is easy to pitch doesn’t mean it’ll make for great TV.
And just because a character works well within the context of a larger cast doesn’t mean that character can shoulder an entire series. In the history of TV, there are more Joeys than Fraziers. Odenkirk’s Saul serves an important function on Breaking Bad. He keeps it light when you’re asking viewers to deal with child murder and heroin overdoses. But what happens when you make comic relief the entire show? Put the dead babies in the backseat, now the clown is driving. (Maybe that could be the first case: a clown kills his kids and Saul has to defend him! That would be a great test of whether Better Call Saul can provide enough drama to balance out Odenkirk’s comic gifts.)
Odenkirk’s HBO sketch show, Mr. Show, is brilliant, no question, and if he ultimately decides that Better Call Saul is a good idea, I’ll follow—reluctantly. Reluctant is the default stance for the viewer bored by the repackaging and reselling of everything in TV and movies. I’ll be reluctant because: Where’s Huell going to be? He won't have been hired by Saul yet in this prequel. Do you want to watch a Saul show that doesn’t include Huell? Of course you don’t. Huell is a mountain of jokes, a blank-faced Buster Keaton blown up with Rick Moranis-type Disney technology, and he makes life better.
What really feels wrong with this spinoff is the way it will exist seemingly to feed fanboy culture, which always wants more of the same. When Breaking Bad, which has been absorbed by Comic-Con and its culture, ends September 29th, a great story will have concluded. It is a selfish fan’s impulse to want to linger in that universe. Bending to the will of fans is why Hollywood blockbusters are such a mess, why movies get made with the litmus test of: will the franchise-lovers feel like this does justice to the property? That’s a lousy criteria for the success of a particular story. The story should exist independently, work independently, be a great narrative in and of itself. Arguing about details like, say, web shooters in Spider-Man is missing the forest for the trees, to use a lame but applicable cliché. It turns producing something great into a checklist. Have we encountered the right characters? Are they in the right costumes? This is a boring way to manufacture an entertainment.
People like Christopher Nolan because his films are the work of one craftsman. He has a particular vision, with a specific set of concerns and stylistic tics, and when he tells a Batman story, it’s through his lens. That approach seemed to work for a lot of people—so why not keep pushing for stories like that? Instead, we have a movie like Man of Steel, which doesn’t feel like anything other than a pummeling mish-mash of styles and concerns. It’s the prototypical checklist movie. There’s Lois Lane, being a reporter. There’s Clark Kent’s dad, being a dad. There’s Clark Kent, wearing glasses. There’s a joke where we almost say Superman but don’t, and so you, the savvy, savvy viewer, you feel real smart, don’t you? That movie aimed to please and it stank, stank, stank. The relationship between product and viewer shouldn’t be based around fidelity, it should be based around quality.
Of course, Better Call Saul won’t be an adaptation. But it does seem to dovetail into the fandom satisfaction model of Thank You, Sir, Can I Have Another. Since when did Breaking Bad become the kind of series that spawns a line of mass-market paperbacks chronicling the teenage adventures of the Salamanca Cousins? Are we that needy?
Anything that gives off even a whiff of fandom fuel is suspect now. Tainted. Tell a story because its creators feel desperately that they need to tell it, not because it’ll make bank and let uncompromising superfans return to a universe they don’t want to leave. If AMC and Sony Pictures Entertainment go through with this project without Gilligan, Gould, and Odenkirk, we can all write it off as just that.
Even if they do stick around, the series won’t scratch the itch the loss of Breaking Bad will create. Only rewatching Breaking Bad can do that. Or perhaps a new dramatic property from Gilligan and his braintrust. Better Call Saul won’t be new. It won’t be the same show as Breaking Bad, either. It’ll occupy some strange middle ground, familiar in appearance but with a different engine operating below the surface, comedy having replaced drama.
You want to know more about Saul, there’s always fan fiction. Don’t call him back.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)