By spawning the acclaimed “Better Call Saul,” “Breaking Bad” achieved a bit of spinoff immortality that eluded “Friends” (“Joey”), “MASH” (“AfterMASH”) and “The Golden Girls” (“The Golden Palace”), among others. As the prequel nears its end, it’s worth considering how the original series’ Emmy-winning legacy cooked up one of the best TV offshoots since “Cheers” begat “Frasier.”
Introduced in 2008, “Breaking Bad” made its debut the year after “Mad Men” put AMC on the map as a home for prestige storytelling. Coupled with FX’s “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck,” those basic cable networks demonstrated what’s considered premium TV could be defined by quality and ambition, not merely its venue.
The keys to “Breaking Bad’s” endurance can be traced to a variety of ingredients, combined in a way that has rippled through “Saul’s” addictive formula, but which has proven as difficult to replicate for imitators as Walter White’s unusually pure meth.
Both series charted the moral descent of their central characters, combining dark comedy, absurd moments and long, slow scenes imbued with tension and high-stakes drama.
Perhaps foremost, “Breaking Bad” – which presented the evolution of high-school chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), faced with a terminal diagnosis, into a criminal mastermind – became one of the most unpredictable series TV has ever produced. Creator Vince Gilligan and his team consistently wrote themselves into seemingly inescapable corners, before revealing some plausible and usually ingenious way out.
As for Walt’s moral decay, the signature moment came when he sat idly by watching the sleeping girlfriend of his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) choke to death – not committing murder, exactly, but failing to intervene in order to protect himself. That foreshadowed additional casualties that would follow, including the astonishing sequence in which White engineered the demise of drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
At the time commentators drew parallels between Walt and Tony Soprano, both family men and criminals who epitomized the age of the TV antihero.
Unlike “The Sopranos,” though, viewers watched the former gradually turn to the dark side, inviting questions about what ordinary people might do under similar circumstances. As critic Gene Seymour noted shortly before the finale, “it’s the seeming normality of Walter White that makes us interrogate ourselves more than he interrogates himself.”
In a sense, “Better Call Saul” faced an even more delicate balancing act that’s common among prequels: building toward the narrative territory occupied by its predecessor without either exhausting that real estate too fast or undermining the popular material that inspired it.
“Saul,” too, has unfolded as “a tragedy,” as Gilligan recently described it in a session with reporters, watching Bob Odenkirk’s character make the transition from Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, with the alienation of his significant other, Kim (Rhea Seehorn), as the mysterious linchpin hovering over the story in terms of completing that metamorphosis.
“Breaking Bad” stuck the landing in terms of its series finale, offering a definitive and satisfying finish after a period characterized by cryptic endings that to various extents left viewers to puzzle over the writers’ intent. The show also bucked TV trends by becoming a late-blooming hit, steadily building audience toward the end – drawing a series-high 10.3 million viewers for its final episode – as people discovered the show and word of mouth spread.
When “Breaking Bad” concluded in 2013 Gilligan took what amounted to a victory lap of TV interviews, including an appearance with Charlie Rose, who asked whether the producer had accepted that he might never do anything this good again.
“It was lightning in a bottle,” Gilligan said.
Against the odds, Gilligan and “Saul” co-creator Peter Gould caught lightning twice. While they have said there are no plans for further adventures in this world – the spinoff of a spinoff – with Gilligan telling Rolling Stone it’s “time to do something new,” the enduring lesson from both series might be how hard it is to walk away from a lucrative enterprise when you’re operating at the top of your game.
“Better Call Saul’s” series finale premieres Aug. 15 on AMC.