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Better Call Saul, a masterclass in fan service

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Warning: Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul spoilers ahead.

When they first announced a Breaking Bad spinoff it was terrifying. When they said it was going to be a prequel focusing on Walter White’s fast talking lawyer, Saul Goodman (played by the excellent Bob Odenkirk), the terror became real. Pushing play on the first few episodes resulted in cold sweats, shakes, nightmares; all lingering effects of Post Traumatic Breaking Bad Stress Disorder (PTBBSD).

It’s tough when something you love goes away. Then they bring it back and it’s not quite right. Also known as the Pet Cemetery effect, which happened to Arrested Development and its zombie season four on Netflix. The oddity of Better Call Saul is that it has been brilliant so far, rare in a graveyard full of failed television spinoffs and revivals. For every Frasier there is The Golden Palace (yes, there was a spinoff of Golden Girls where they ran a hotel). Even Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul head honcho, Vince Gilligan, tasted the failure of the one season wonder (some say ahead of its time) X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen in the early noughties.

The Lone Gunmen, a failure ahead of its time.
The Lone Gunmen, a failure ahead of its time.

Better Call Saul co-creators Gilligan and Peter Gould seem to have learnt from the past and given Breaking Bad fans the best reason to watch Better Call Saul by not overtly pandering to fan service at all. Yes, there are references to Breaking Bad in Better Call Saul, or ‘Saulbacks’ as coined by Esquire Magazine.

Bob Odenkirk, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan
Bob Odenkirk, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan

 

The appearance of the gangster Tuco Salamanca at the end of the first episode Uno was a big dirty hook but the ‘Saulbacks’ are more like a treasure hunt than a series of heavy lidded winks at the audience. Better Call Saul has succeeded so far because it’s widening the narrative and plunging into depths of established characters from Breaking Bad while introducing us to new characters that trace the evolution of Saul, whose real name is James McGill. The first time you notice the spinoff’s power is when you start referring to Saul as James or Jimmy, sure to be a mainstay question on trivia quiz night sheets around the world.

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The key focus is the storytelling essential to detailing the essence of what makes these characters intriguing. Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut is one of the Breaking Bad alumni present in Better Call Saul who has proven the riches of working with a character whose fate is solidly entrenched in the lore of Breaking Bad. In the recent episode Five-O, the focus was taken off Saul/Jimmy to examine the events that brought Mike to Albuquerque. The episode focused on the death of Mike’s son and corrupt cops in Philadelphia. Flashbacks have never been this good, and it added a new layer to the character that warrants going back through Breaking Bad with the awareness of the baggage Mike carries. This is what a spinoff should do, add to the overarching story, not distract from it. If Walter White is going to appear in Better Call Saul, you know Gilligan and Gould are going to underplay it as not to befuddle away from Saul/Jimmy. Walter may awkwardly cross paths with Mike on the street or be waiting silently in line with Saul/Jimmy at the pharmacy.

In a culture obsessed with personal memories of favourite television shows or movies, often barely off our screens a few years, it’s so easy for a creator to lean heavily on what has come before and sacrifice the opportunity to tell new stories or insights into the notions of preconceived characters. The Kickstarter driven Veronica Mars movie fell on the sword of fandom by bending to meet the demands of a fan base and sacrificed the quality of the project. Veronica Mars creator, Rob Thomas, had no other option in this situation because fans were bankrolling a chunk of the production and they wanted their nods to the camera.

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Be careful what you wish for.

 

At the writing of this article Better Call Saul will be into its seventh episode out of the 10 that make up the first season. With each episode, the PTBBSD melts away, and the realisation that Gilligan and Gould are crafting a spinoff series that matches Breaking Bad. We are witnessing a miracle.

Cameron Williamsfollow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW

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