‘Breaking Bad’ spinoff: Five lessons for Saul Goodman
Everyone agrees that AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is one of the best dramas on TV, and Wednesday’s news that Sony Pictures Television and AMC would be moving forward with a spinoff starring shady lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) was received by fans mostly with praise. But the series, tentatively titled “Better Call Saul” will be treading some tricky waters, made rougher by the failures of other spinoffs that have come before it.
Goodman has served as comic relief for the series, which has been grim and sometimes unbearably tense. The proposed series will no doubt be lighter in tone than “Breaking Bad,” however series co-creator Peter Gould told Entertainment Weekly, “When people think of a Saul Goodman spinoff, they tend to think in terms of a laugh-a-minute comedy, and we’re going for something that has a very, very unique tone.”
This isn’t the first time a successful and beloved series has attempted a spinoff, but Gould and fellow creator Vince Gilligan would do well to study the lessons learned by previous spinoff attempts, some successful and some grim.
1. Don’t change careers. In 1987, beloved police drama “Hill Street Blues” came to an end, and producers, including David Milch, attempted to keep the party going with “Beverly Hills Buntz.” The series, which starred Dennis Franz reprising his “Blues” character Lt. Norman Buntz, took the character out of the police force and plopped him into Beverly Hills, where he became a private investigator. The series, which was a comedy, lasted just nine episodes and was described by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales as “dismal.”
2. Remember what made the original compelling. “M*A*S*H” had one direct spinoff and one semi-spinoff. And though “AfterMASH” featured many of the same actors playing the same characters from “M*A*S*H,” it didn’t fare nearly as well as “Trapper John, M.D.,” which took a “M*A*S*H” character but replaced him with a different actor and moved him nearly three decades into the future. While neither series put the characters in the life or death theater of war, at least “Trapper John, M.D.” retained the life or death drama of the operating room. Meanwhile, “AfterMASH” veered too far into straight comedy.
3. Prequels are hard. No one knows exactly what will happen to “Breaking Bad’s” characters, but everyone will know what lies in Saul Goodman’s future. While shows that have leaped generations into the future from the originals have done well, prequel series, such as “Caprica” from “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” from the original “Star Trek,” have had a rough time making things compelling. It’ll take extra work to get people as invested in the twists and turns of “Better Call Saul.”
4. Don’t lose the vices. The world of “Breaking Bad” is one of drug dealers, drug lords, cops and junkies. Saul Goodman is just one part of that, but his world isn’t necessarily limited to the drug world. While it may be tempting to expand Goodman into other aspects of the law, it may be best to remember the fate of The Lone Gunmen, the comic relief conspiracy theorists from “The X-Files” that got their own spinoff series on Fox. While “The X-Files” featured the trio working to unravel bizarre alien conspiracies, their own series abandoned the paranormal and unexplained and focused on more terrestrial conspiracies and crimes. It only lasted 13 episodes.
5. It’s not an impossible task. Just look at “Lou Grant,” the dramatic spinoff series from the sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that starred Ed Asner as grizzled newspaper editor Lou Grant. The series lasted five seasons, won an Emmy for best drama series and two Emmys for Asner. It also had Grant change occupations from the news director at a TV station to a newspaper editor. And then there’s “Frasier,” which followed the 11 seasons of “Cheers” with 11 seasons of its own, got Frasier Crane out of the bar, changed his occupation and still managed to be a winner.
And hey, if they’re able to pull off a Saul Goodman spinoff, maybe soon we’ll see drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) back for a cooking show (he makes great fried chicken). Or possibly bring back wheelchair-bound, bell-ringing baddie Hector Salamanca for a variety show (he could ding the failed acts off the stage).
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