AMC today announced that it was moving forward with plans for a Breaking Bad spinoff prequel, Better Call Saul, based on Bob Odenkirk’s shady bus-bench lawyer, Saul Goodman. (It is not entirely clear from the wording of AMC’s announcement whether it is committing to pick up a season of the series, or simply committing to develop it.) The timing is fortuitous for the network, since not only did AMC just re-cancel The Killing but it will, inside a year, lose Breaking Bad and Mad Men as well–and Breaking Bad is notching by far its best ratings ever.
But is it a good idea? Let’s summon the lawyers and make the case for—and against:
The Condiment Conundrum. Do you love ketchup? God, I love ketchup. Give me a stack of salty fries and a juicy burger and I’ll empty half a bottle of the stuff. I love its its savoriness, its tomatoey richness, its tanginess—and this is the key point—with other food. I do not want to eat a bowl of ketchup. Saul Goodman is the ketchup on Breaking Bad‘s burger. He sets off the darker elements of the show; he delivers exquisite one-liners; he is also, at times, key to the plot. But he works well because he works in small doses. No better to base a show on him than to make a Lost spinoff about Hurley, or Frogurt. (In a way Vince Gilligan did this once, producing the X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen, with mixed results.)
Enough Already. Sure, if Breaking Bad is a great series, it will continue to be great no matter how well a this series turns out. But one assumes, if the show to date is any guide, that Walter White’s story will end with a certain degree of tragedy and emotional heft. Does anyone really want to undercut its impact with a new series, in the same universe, about the zany antics of their cynical lawyer? As many a sports legend has discovered, one key to capping off a great career is knowing when to walk away.
It’s a Prequel, Which Limits the Possibilities. According to AMC, the show will follow Saul and his practice before he ever meets Walter White or Jesse Pinkman. This may solve some problems—say if Saul should inconveniently die by Breaking Bad‘s end—but it also limits the sense, present in a show like Breaking Bad, that anything can happen, because we know where Saul ends up.
It’s a Spinoff, Not a Remake. Lou Grant wasn’t The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And, okay, AfterMASH wasn’t M*A*S*H. The point is, a spinoff, or a prequel, doesn’t have to be the same in tone or structure to the series that birthed it. Better Call Saul needn’t copy or imitate Breaking Bad to be a good show. Saul’s a rumpled, cynical character in the style of a ’70s TV protagonist—Jim Rockford, say—and if his writers know their stuff, they’ll probably build a show that fits him: a kind of sleazy legal-procedural that can be entertaining in its own way.
Saul’s Not Entirely Comic Relief. Lest we forget, these past few weeks it’s Saul who first suggested the idea of sending Jesse on a trip to “Belize,” putting him down Old Yeller-style. For a funny guy, Odenkirk has shown range with the character, and its possible that a dark comedy-drama built around him could have surprising intensity.
It’s a Prequel, Which Expands the Possibilities. Life is long, and people change. There are vast tracts of Saul’s past that we don’t know about, and if it was interesting to see how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface, could it not be interesting to see how one gets to become Scarface’s lawyer? Hell, maybe he didn’t even live in Albuquerque! And think of the possibilities for raise-the-dead cameos. (Giancarlo Esposito, call your agent.)
Fortunately, we don’t have to issue one. That is, if a Better Call Saul series is made, and it’s terrible, no court can compel you to watch it–and they can’t take those seasons of Breaking Bad away from you. So let AMC try to call on Saul one more time. But Mr. Goodman, and Mr. Gilligan: I would tread lightly.