No one likes being Catfished, but I’d readily forgive Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan if the yearlong talks of a Saul spin-off turned out to be an elaborate viral ad for the show’s final eight episodes (premiering this Sunday). That might be too much to hope for, though, since Gilligan reiterated his support for “The Saul Show” at the TCAs several days ago, calling its materialization his “fervent wish” and announcing that he and Peter Gould, the writer-producer who created the jesterly consigliere character, had been working on the pilot script. If Gilligan and Gould have decided whether the spin-off would be a comedy or a drama, a half-hour or hour long, or a prequel or a sequel, they’ve remained mum on such details.
If it came to pass, The Saul Show would be only the second spin-off among the post-Sopranos prestige cable dramas (the first was Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica appendage that fans and critics found vestigial). Likewise, a Breaking Bad spin-off should give us pause, as it would break two of prestige cable dramas’ implied pacts with its quality-seeking audience: auteurship (the sequel’s showrunner would be Gould, not Gilligan) and a certain level of resistance to commercial pressures. Because Breaking Bad has never been a ratings boon for AMC like The Walking Dead, The Saul Show feels less like a naked cash-grab in the way, say, Joey was, and more like an exhausted writer seeking to coast a bit. But there are still so many reasons to be skeptical of a spin-off, a TV model that flops more often than it succeeds and can retroactively cast a pall on the original show.
The timing of the spin-off announcement couldn’t have been more ill-conceived. News of a Saul sequel before the sure-to-be-bloody last eight episodes all but guaranteed the character’s immunity from the mounting violence around him. That proved to be a disappointing revelation (and the rare spoiler from a program’s showrunner), given that one of Breaking Bad’s strengths is its willingness to shunt off important or well-liked characters to the Great Meth Lab in the Sky. (Perhaps this is why Gilligan has suggested the spin-off might be a prequel.) While the motor-mouthed Saul is a great candidate among the show’s characters for a spin-off if one must be made – he’s not too close to Walt, and therefore might emerge relatively unscathed; plus he could join Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister as one of cable dramas’ few talky protagonists – he’s been cowed and muzzled by Walt for so long it’s a bit of a struggle to remember why he was so likable in earlier seasons.
But by far the most disappointing thing about the planned spin-off is the way it’ll work to further homogenize television. Breaking Bad is usually lumped in with other critic-bait shows with antiheroic centers like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, but that grouping belies its radical premise, its unique Southwestern setting, and its diverse cast. The show not only has an actor with cerebral palsy in R. J. Mitte, who plays Walt Junior, but also routinely features Native American characters as members of contemporary America.
The Saul Show, on the other hand, would be just another “wacky lawyer” show – the kind of overly familiar product that David E. Kelley, among many others, has been churning out for the last twenty years. It’s not that Gilligan, Gould, or would-be star Bob Odenkirk lack the talent to make such a show worth watching. But the television landscape is already so overcrowded with attorneys of every persuasion and tic that, if the spin-off were to succeed, Breaking Bad might well undo its great legacies in narrative originality, thematic complexity, and sublime cinematography by making television a duller place than it has to be.
Moreover, if Breaking Bad’s greatest success lies in exploring the angry, entitled white masculinity that’s exploded in the past thirty years – a theme few other TV shows have dared to broach – its spin-off would have to jettison the point of the original show, given Saul’s garden-variety greed, compared to Walt’s sociopathic megalomania. Simply by not being one of the best shows of all time, then, The Saul Show has enormous potential to cheapen, if not tarnish, its progenitor. That Gilligan is willing to take that risk is admirable, but his bravery inspires no more confidence.
In the meantime, fans who can’t let go might find some solace in the evocatively titled Metástasis, Univision’s Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad starring Diego Trujillo. ¡Viva Walter Blanco!