Better call Saul: Do we want a ‘Breaking Bad’ spin-off?

Senior Television Writer
04.09.13 79 Comments

It was a running gag in this season’s “Justified” reviews that I wanted FX to create a web series around Jere Burns’ Kentucky wiseguy character in which Wynn Duffy reacted to surprising things. A few days ago, a reader named Jason McNamara actually came up with the perfect premise and title: “Wynnipeg,” a shameless rip-off of the Steve Van Zandt Netflix series “Lilyhammer,” in which Wynn stays in Canada and teaches the locals how we do things south of the 49th parallel.

Little did I know that a “Wynnipeg”-esque spin-off of a current great drama was potentially going to be a real thing. Today, Deadline is reporting(*) that Sony is exploring the idea of creating a “Breaking Bad” spin-off centered around Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, created by Vince Gilligan and veteran “Breaking Bad” writer Peter Gould, who wrote season 2’s “Better Call Saul.” The show would be a comedy, though potentially an hour-long one.

(*) Note: Sony has a special relationship with Deadline, in which the site often functions as a trial balloon for the salvation or creation of a Sony show (see the resurrection of “Breaking In,” or the current reports of USA being interested in saving “Happy Endings”). So this could just be Sony thinking aloud through its favorite news operation.

And certainly, if you’re going to consider doing a spin-off of “Breaking Bad,” Saul is the way to go. He’s a memorable character who’s largely insulated from what we assume the fallout of Walter White’s actions will be in the series’ final 8 episodes. Saul can very easily pack up and move to another city, or simply take on a new breed of clients from his Albuquerque storefront operation, and maybe occasionally allude to the crazy chemistry teacher who made him so rich in the first place. It’s the same thinking that led the “Cheers” producers to pick Frasier Crane as the one character who could exist outside the bar.

And while Odenkirk has never been the single lead of a series before (he was one of the runners-up to Steve Carell for “The Office”), he’s a known quantity who’s worked steadily in TV for over 20 years, whether as an actor, a writer or (in the case of “Mr. Show with Bob and David”) both. You can build a series around him as this character.

And once you start looking at it that way, it’s not hard to imagine other spin-offs being built around memorable peripheral characters from current great dramas. Beyond “Better Call Saul” and “Wynnipeg,” you could do (note: many of these ideas and/or titles come courtesy of Dan Fienberg):

* “The Fix,” a “Boardwalk Empire” prequel about how Arnold Rothstein rigged the 1919 World Series, or else a Chalky-centric show about him setting up a jazz club (“White Jazz,” maybe?).

* “Queen Elsbeth,” starring Carrie Preston as eccentric “Good Wife” attorney Elsbeth Tascioni.

* “Mad Men” offers many possibilities from the end of the bench, whether it’s Ken quitting the ad game to write full-time (“Dave Algonquin’s Roundtable”), catching up with Sal Romano now working as a pastry chef (“Blueberries for Sal”), or something about Paul’s struggles in late ’60s Hollywood (“The Kinsey Report”).

* “Homeland” rarely has enough time to give David Marciano things to do, but Virgil and his brother Max as low-rent private eyes who dabble in the intelligence game could be a thing. In an homage to “Jake & the Fat Man,” perhaps it would be “Virgil & the Quiet Guy.”

* Since Jason Katims loves employing Jason Ritter, and since Sarah and Mark could never make it work on “Parenthood,” maybe he hits the road and teaches in a new town in “To Cyr, with Love.”

* Not that “The Newsroom” is a great show, but it has some characters who might be more enjoyable outside the shadow of Will McAvoy. Olivia Munn’s been a revelation as Sloan Sabbith for instance; maybe she gets her own show, or goes back to Wall Street. Either way, you call it “Keep the Sabbith.” Or else follow Dev Patel’s Neal as he travels the globe “In Search of Bigfoot.”

* Four words: Kristian Nairn is “Hodor!”

But here’s the thing: while I might genuinely enjoy many of these shows – or others I’ve suggested in the past, like an alternate version of “The Walking Dead” built around Lennie James as Morgan – I think in many cases, what makes these characters work so well as side dishes might not when they become the main course. Sometimes, you can take Mary Richards’ boss into a new city (and a new genre) and get “Lou Grant,” but other times you get things like “Enos” or “AfterM*A*S*H” – or like (as James Poniewozik noted on Twitter) “The X-Files” spin-off “The Lone Gunmen,” where Gilligan and a number of other “Breaking Bad” writers worked for 13 episodes. Saul’s a richer character than Byers, Frohike and Langly, and Odenkirk better-equipped to carry a show, but it still feels like a case of overestimating a bench player’s ability to carry the team on his own.

What does everybody else think? If AMC were to announce “Better Call Saul” tomorrow, would you be setting the season pass, or do you think he and Wynn, Elsbeth, Chalky, etc. are so memorable because of how sparingly they’re used? Or are there other minor characters on your favorite dramas you’d love to see become the center of some other show?

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