Saturday 10 January 2015

I'm Spinnin' Around (VOR)

This post contains spoilers for the final season of Breaking Bad. You have been warned. Bitch.

Having just finished watching Breaking Bad for the first time (FYI: Believe the hype, it's without a doubt one of the best shows ever made), my attention immediately turned to where I can get my next TV fix.

With my head still immersed in the world of Walter White, meth labs and New Mexico, I soon found myself hunting around for all the information on upcoming Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul, which centres on the immensely popular side character, Saul Goodman.

Whilst the whole things sounds good, and I'll certainly check it out, it made me wonder - is it really...necessary? How can a mere spin-off compare with the original?

The TV spin-off is an industry mainstay as old as Moses - for as a long as there has been successful TV shows, there have been spinoffs dreamt up to capitalise and extend that popularity. As a result, the TV spin-off has often been burdened with the sometimes unfair generalisation of being unnecessary, superfluous or just plain greedy. You know what they say about beating a dead horse...

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in AMC's
Better Call Saul
I think, when discussing TV spinoffs, it's important to clear up just one thing - that generalisation is certainly wide of the mark. Not all spinoffs are downright terrible - a vast majority are, but there is always going to be that one shining diamond in the rough that defies expectation and proves to be actually (whisper it) pretty good.

Essentially, what I'm trying to say is this - they're a mixed-bag, ranging from the uniquely refreshing (Torchwood, The Legend of Korra) to the obscure and nonsensical (Little Britain USA) and the simply ridiculous (every fucking Kardashian and Real Housewives show in the history of ever).

But anyway, back to Breaking Bad. This might sound crazy, but I'm not sure whether more Breaking Bad is a good thing. The show is so good, so well-rounded that any additional storytelling - even if it is about a much-loved side character - feels superfluous. I mean, don't get me wrong - I really love Saul. He's a fantastic character. I'm itching to see him get into all sorts of shenanigans. But, at the end of the day, he's still going to end up being the same as we know him right now. He's still going to be a shady solicitor in Albuquerque, a slimy self-preserving worm where any run-ins he may have with characters like Walt, Jesse or Skyler end up being trivial and inconsequential.

Spin-offs that truly excel are the ones that expand beyond the existing format, putting their own unique spin (heh) on something viewers are familiar with. Take another current example, The Flash. This highly-popular superhero fare sprouted from another weekly comic-book show, Arrow. In fact, if you consider the ratings, The Flash has already exceeded the success of Arrow in just a few short months of being on air.

Grant Gustin, Tom Cavanagh and Candice Patton who play
Barry Allen, Dr. Wells and Iris Allen in The CW's The Flash
The Flash is so successful because it has the scope and ambition to build into its own distinct entity. I'm only three episodes in and can already tell it's a completely different deal than Arrow. Not only does Barry Allen have a completely different persona and situation to Oliver Queen, but he's also got other driving factors (metahumans over a list of names) and backstory. Different characters, different setting, different plot - if it wasn't for drip-drip of references to Starling City and the upcoming Flash vs. Arrow crossover you'd be forgiven for not making the connection.

The writers of The Flash aren't restricted to the precedent set by Arrow. They can take the show in any way they want. The same can be said for some of the other successful spin-offs I mentioned earlier, like Torchwood or The Legend of Korra. They took an existing word with plenty of scope and took them in a new, refreshing and captivating direction. In some ways, Legend of Korra surpasses The Last Airbender (just my opinion, don't crucify me!)

And, as much as I hate to admit it, shows like CSI, Law and Order and NCIS have spawned successful spin-offs for the same reason. As cookie-cutter and derivative as NCIS: LA and Law and Order: SVU are, they're popular with viewers because they aren't building towards something predetermined and are concerned with their own characters and narratives, rather than plugging holes we didn't know existed.

I guess my main point of this aimless ramble is to point out that I'd be a lot more interested in Better Call Saul (I keep wanting to spell it 'Better Caul Saul') if it had followed the character after the events of Breaking Bad. I've read that the show will explore these ideas, but I mean really invest in them. Screw the past - what happens next? Sure, we'd not see any cameos from Walt, Mike, Gus and the dozens of other characters that bit the dust but it'd have a lot more potential for further character growth from its protagonist. Put simply, they could take it anywhere.

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter in Marvel's Agent Carter
It's for this same reason I can't get all that excited about Agent Carter, the new prequel spin-off from Marvel that follows Hayley Atwell's titular SHIELD agent as she goes about laying the groundwork for an organisation we all know comes crashing to the ground in last years' feature film Captain America: The Winter Solider. I'm digging the period vibe and all, but what is there to invest in if we already know how it turns out?

Anyway, you get the picture. I remain quietly curious and skeptical about Better Call Saul. Hopefully, in a few months time, the worse that could happen is that I end up looking very red-faced when the show is deemed a massive hit. I'd be happy with that - I like when something exceeds meagre expectations. With any luck, this whole post (and its points about spin-offs) will be irrelevant very soon. Prove me wrong Vince Gilligan - I dare you.

TV spin-offs are often quite divisive - I'd love to hear what you think! Let me know in the comments below - did I hit the nail on the head or am I way off base? 

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