Better Call Saul: Who you gonna call for lightning to strike twice?
The 'Breaking Bad' team is back with a spin-off - Better Call Saul
There is little doubt that Breaking Bad was one of the defining moments of the so-called Golden Age of Television that we have been enjoying in recent years, in which audiences, producers and critics looked to the small screen for servings of the same moral complexity that defined the New Hollywood of the 1970s.
The trend for small-screen anti-heroes began with The Sopranos in 1999, and was completed game, set and match by Brian Cranston's towering performance as Walter White in Breaking Bad, which ended its fifth and final season in late 2013 as one of the most successful and highest-rated drama series in television history.
Breaking Bad was a modern-day western combined with Greek tragedy: the hero's journey in reverse in which Mr. White lapsed from frustrated, middle-aged family man to ruthless, mass-murdering crime lord against the vast blue skies and boundless deserts of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
It was a dramatic achievement that will be hard to beat, but series creator Vince Gilligan returns to the same setting this week to explore the past of Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk. Goodman was White's fast-talking lawyer, himself deeply immersed in the city's criminal underworld and something of a middleman for its vast network of characters and capers.
Set six years before the events of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is a similarly themed story about a man's journey to the dark side, or as Gilligan famously put it: "from Mr. Chips to Scarface."
"We had been joking about this since season 2 of Breaking Bad," Gilligan says.
"We joked about it so much that eventually we realised we were on to something. While we were finishing up Breaking Bad, we [Gilligan and co-exec Peter Gould] would take these long walks, have a lot of beers and ask ourselves how it would work, and what kind of a show it could be.
"Eventually," Gilligan continues, "there was a moment at the wrap party where Bob got up to make a speech and said: 'Ultimately, the greatness of a TV show is judged by its spin-offs.' That made us all laugh, and we knew he was on board."
Actor Bob Odenkirk agrees that the idea for the new series started as a joke, and that his attitude towards it was pragmatic at best. "I told Vince, 'if you write it, I'll do it'," he says, "but only if he had a genuine desire to explore the character.
As he and Peter started writing, they became curious about who Saul was and "how he could become the kind of person we met in Breaking Bad".
Before he became Albuquerque's most notorious criminal lawyer, we learn, Saul Goodman started out as plain old Jimmy McGill, a hard-working attorney with a flair for downmarket cases and whose moral compass and ambition are always at war with one another.
"This is a different kind of anti-hero than Walter White," Vince Gilligan explains.
"Walter was full of darkness, but Jimmy has a tremendous amount of energy and zest. He's a rascal more than a villain, and in the beginning he doesn't bend the law until it breaks. He's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with, and I would definitely want him as my lawyer."
Odenkirk's character provided much of the comic relief in Breaking Bad, but Gilligan stresses that Better Call Saul isn't a comedy.
"As we wrote," he says, "it became darker than any of us thought it would. At the same time though, so many 'dark' shows are ponderous and so full of gravitas that you can't take it [True Detective, Hannibal, we're looking at you]. So any time you can believably put humour in to drama, you do it."
A glance at Bob Odenkirk's CV does suggest that wherever he goes, humour will follow. He started out as a writer on Saturday Night Live in the late 1980s, scripting for the likes of Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and the late Chris Farley, eventually focusing on a career as a performer himself. He co-created, wrote and starred [with David Cross] in Mr. Show with Bob and Dave between 1995 and 1998. Throughout the 2000s he appeared in a large number of smaller roles before being cast as Saul Goodman in 2008. Odenkirk currently rests on top of the world: leading man in a new series with a built-in global fan base.
"This is certainly a high point for me," he agrees. "You don't get a richer role than this. I think when De Niro sees Better Call Saul he's going to yell at his agent. I did not do anything to deserve it though; I won the lottery. A lot of show business people are always positioning themselves for the NEXT thing. For me, there is no next thing. It's all downhill from here. That said, I'm not going to stop doing what I do. When I have free time, I work. It's kind of a mid-western work ethic."
And what about that built-in global fan base, some of which may be fearful that a spin-off might tarnish Breaking Bad's flawless legacy?
"It's great to have that," Gilligan agrees, " but it's a double-edged sword too. People can turn off fast if they don't get what they want. But you know something? We don't know what people want.
Breaking Bad was a phenomenon; we worked very hard and half the time I was hanging on by my fingernails. I couldn't begin to tell you what it was that made it so successful. "I like to think people are out there waiting for us to NOT screw it up."
Better Call Saul debuts on Netflix next Monday, February 9.