Starship Troopers Japanese book illustration
I may be one of the only people you’ll ever know who didn’t adore the TV series Breaking Bad, and it’s not like I didn’t try. Every year when a new season would premier on AMC I’d dutifully watch the first few episodes and try to find something about the show that I liked. I even tried watching old seasons of the show whenever AMC would run them before the start of new ones. Even last summer I once again tried watching Breaking Bad, this time starting in the second season and skipping the first altogether since I’d already tried that one several times. But even now after an episode or two I’d get tired of the show and bail.
It’s not like I thought that Breaking Bad was a cruddy show, just that it wasn’t a show that I could get into. So amongst my friends who craved each new episode/season like a drug I was left out.
So how weird is it that I think the Breaking Bad spin-off/prequel series Better Call Saul is one of the best things on TV and it was me who craved each new episode like a drug?
Better Call Saul follows the Breaking Bad mold with the central concept of a seemingly normal person pushed to their limits who escapes into a life of crime as a means to an end. But Better Call Saul differs with Breaking Bad since it’s a series that actively messes with viewer expectations throughout the show.
The character of Saul Goodman (the wonderful Bob Odenkirk) from Breaking Bad doesn’t appear in the first season of the show — instead he’s pre-Goodman Jimmy McGill. If Goodman is a shark lawyer out to make himself rich not caring what side of the law he’s working for other than who pays the most, McGill is a down on his luck sad-sack attorney with a crummy office in the back room of a nail salon who splits his time being a public defender at $700 a case and drafting wills for seniors for $50 a pop.
And this theme of the show going to unexpected places for even fans of Breaking Bad who thought they knew who Goodman was continues throughout Better Call Saul, and I think is what makes it so different than just about anything else on TV today.
Most shows don’t come with much baggage. We might know some of the actors in new roles from previous performances or know that a show is from the same people who created some other popular show. And while we might think we know what a new series is going to be about, odds are that we really don’t. But with Better Call Saul the audience really did know Goodman from Breaking Bad since he appeared in most of those episodes.
As the first season of Better Call Saul progressed we get to see how this guy who started out as Jimmy who only wanted to really work in the same firm alongside his brother becomes disillusioned with “doing the right thing” and slowly becomes the shady character from Breaking Bad.
It’s like when an airliner crashes and we learn that it’s because a whole host of things that went wrong on the flight. That’s what happens to Jimmy — if just a few things had gone differently for him from a having a few different friends to not having a broken support system he might have not gone down the road of crime.
And Saul isn’t the only character who the viewer thinks they know who they are at the start of the first season, but by the end we realize that we didn’t know at all. There’s another lawyer played by Patrick Fabian who starts out as Jimmy’s nemesis but by the end of the season we realize is someone different altogether and Jimmy’s brother played by Michael McKean who’s another character that, to put it mildly, “evolves” throughout the run.
So, by actively messing with viewer expectations and taking their new show down a different story path than the obvious one, series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould took something that in less capable hands would have been a tired retread of what had come before — for examples see the constant spinoffs from CSI, Law and Order, Chicago Fire, NCIS – barf… — and instead created something new and different.
The second season of Better Call Saul premieres Monday, February 15 on AMC.