As treacherous as spin-offs can be, it’s still not hard to understand why AMC would want to venture down that road with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Most weeks that it airs, TWD is the number one show on television and, thought it started out with just a cult following, Breaking Bad ended its reign as a bonafide cultural phenomenon with universal fan and critical praise. And with Netflix, the show’s staying power in the collective cultural consciousness continues to be pretty impressive.
With one having just finished its second season and the other one just starting theirs, Better Call Saul stands as a modest hit for the network that earns pretty consistent critical praise while Fear The Walking Dead brings in much more impressive numbers but seems to have been welcomed by bored eyerolls, more than anything. The most recent outing of Fear entitled “Blood in the Streets” was probably my favorite episode to date but I can’t deny that the show’s been a borefest for much of its first ten episodes. Of course, it’s no surprise that a show spun off from a problematic mothership that has often shown shades of greatness one week while slipping into longs ruts of tedious misery would be crippled with even more severe problems. Saul, on the other hand, was spun off from the one of the greatest shows of all time….which is a blessing and curse as far as the lense with which I and many others watch it through is concerned. It’s a very good show much of the time, but it’s not without its problems. Here are some of the ways the shows have soared and failed in a few key areas.
Breaking Bad was such a full and complete story, almost any other spin off would have come off as a cynical cash grab. Saul may be a cash grab but choosing to tell his story is the best way to continue to play in this universe while getting the characters wrapped up in a very different type of tale. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are certain limitations that the show faces when your main character is a sleazy lawyer whose ending the entire audience already knows, but Odenkirk has always been able to tap into what makes Saul simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic with far less to do, so giving him a showcase makes sense.
Of course, I occasionally second guess that he was the best character for the job when Mike Ehrmantraut gets a spotlight episode. There’s no question that the subject matter is instantly more compelling and Jonathan Banks always knocks the material out of the park. Still, a lot of his stuff in the latter half of the season concerning Hector Salamanca felt a little too similar to ground we’d already covered. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it, but an entire series about Mike’s escalating connection to the drug world would certainly feel like a rehash to a certain degree.
So, Saul makes the best choice. His fractured relationship with his brother is often times fascinating and their tense interactions can sometimes have me on the edge of my seat as much as any Bad action. Rhea Seehorn has done a terrific job making Kim Wexler a sympathetic and absorbing love interest for Jimmy, getting the audience invested in her story even though something will happen that will take her out of Saul’s orbit eventually. I mentioned above that I do have my issues with Saul but the characters (and the tremendous actors behind them) are certainly not one of them.
The show also gets a few bonus points for a Veronica Mars Season 3 reunion of Patrick Fabian and Ed Begley Jr. in its second season.
On Fear The Walking Dead, however, the characters often feel like a death sentence for any hopes I have of ever being emotionally involved with the show. I remember being thrilled that Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis were cast at the two leads but Travis and Madison are such nothing characters, I’m hard pressed to remember their names most weeks. Pretty much all I know about them is that they’d do anything to protect their kids and Travis can fix most everything. I mean, that’s a fine foundation but the glaring lack of depth with these two characters is troubling when thinking about what kind of future the show can have.
On The Walking Dead, a lot of sins are forgiven due to the fact that we love Daryl and Michionne and Carol and, most weeks, Rick. We’ve got several characters that we are actually invested in to varying degrees and, although the show has made some pretty awful choices with some of their characters–particularly those added later in the show’s run–our commitment to the core group counts for a lot.
Since Fear covers the beginning of the zombie outbreak, this could have technically been a show about a character that’s already been killed off of TWD, but who would they have gone with? Shane and Lori are immediately out for their connection to Rick and although a show could exist about Andrea and her sister, they made Andrea so insufferable in the series, I can’t imagine who would want that. I also don’t feel like there’d be a high demand for Dale or T-Dogg VS. The Walking Dead. So, I think Fear was smart to start from scratch rather than going the prequel route like Saul, but it has, thus far, failed spectacularly of introducing almost anyone I care about.
The rest of the characters range from utterly forgettable (Chris, Alicia, Ofelia) to consistently irritating (Nick, Daniel). Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) is the notable exception as the one character they seem to be putting any amount of effort into. He still feels, in some ways, like the gruff “do whatever’s necessary” character we’ve seen a thousand times over on other shows, but they’ve given him some unique shading and an intriguing backstory, which is more than I can say for anyone else on that ship.
Staying with Fear for a moment, it’s continually baffling to me how the show seems to be moving way too fast and way too slow at the same time. There have been a number of episodes that were punishingly dull to endure, but the overall narrative has, at many points, whizzed by with reckless abandon.
When it was announced that we were getting a show documenting the beginning of the zombie outbreak, I was really excited to see a lot of different stories we hadn’t witnessed before. Have some blanks filled in. The first season (which was a mere six episodes) had a smattering of that, but by the end of its run, it felt like we were relatively close to where the original series had begun in the first place. Zombies have taken over and everyone is out for themselves, setting us up to see the same stories we’ve seen over and over for the last six seasons on The Walking Dead. If the original is already being criticized for over relying on its “Introduce New Characters, Reveal Said Characters are Insane, Repeat” formula, why would Fear put itself in a place where it would be forced to tell such similar stories?
The original series is often criticized for how slowly it moves, but I at least appreciate the often subtle, deliberate way it sets out to tell a pretty crazy story. If Fear had let time pass in a similar fashion, we could’ve gotten a few good seasons out of the initial outbreak and the chaos that ensued. Instead, we jumped from zombie sightings to a military takeover to a Hell slightly more populated than the mothership over the course of a few episodes. Of course, given that the early episodes were all about Nick detoxing and Madison playing board games with the kids, I don’t know exactly what I’m clamoring for.
Well, a better version of this show. That’s what.
I did feel like this season’s second episode, “We All Fall Down,” was an interesting detour and an intriguing example of the kind of quiet standalone stories the series could have been incorporating from the beginning. The execution was far from flawless and it’s hard for me to get too invested in one-off character when I’m indifferent towards the main cast, but there was still something there. The Walking Dead has done well posing grim moral conundrums against the backdrop of its horrific universe; Fear can do the same and I wish it had attempted to do so right out of the gate. Instead, the pieces were clumsily put into place and we really only experienced lazy writing and boring character introductions before we’d gone through the motions of setting the plot into motion and getting the show into an all-too-familiar zombie apocalypse status quo. What’s the point of this being a prequel anyway?
Breaking Bad was a show that expertly employed the slow burn, but it never felt slow. Every excruciating moment of tension felt crucial to propelling the narrative forward and capturing the appropriate emotions of any given situation, no matter how high or low the stakes.
Nearly everything on Saul revolves around considerably lower stakes and I feel that its effort to mimic the pace of Breaking Bad has worked against it. It’s hard for me to always point a finger at specifically which fat needs to be trimmed, but I just know that I absolutely adore the show that Saul ended up being in the final episodes of both its seasons, but sometimes felt the road getting there was a bit arduous.
A lot of it has to do with the show’s effort to capture just how mundane and futile Jimmy’s attempt to be a legitimate lawyer actually is. In season one, we were shown in drab, repetitive detail what a miserable drag Jimmy’s life as a public defender was and this season we were exposed to every single beat of Jimmy’s journey at Davis & Main that ultimately ended with him in the exact position he was at the end of season two. Along the way, we’re treated to different plans and schemes Jimmy employs and we’re shown every meticulous detail of him securing the trust of elders, filming an unorthodox commercial or even setting his brother up for failure. All of this stuff certainly paid off story wise in a number of ways, but the show’s insistence to screech to a halt on a far too consistent basis does make it feel a lot more tedious than it should be.
Patience is a virtue and you can do worse than trusting Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould will always deliver an excellent payoff (they haven’t failed me yet) but the road to get there has been taxing. I actually really like that they’re delivering a spinoff that is telling a quieter story driven by much lower stakes and presenting us with a barrage of meaningful character moments along the way, but Breaking Bad could get away with taking its sweet time to get to the point because of the inherent peril baked into the show’s DNA. With low stakes comes a new responsibility to tell the story in the most compelling way possible. Now, Saul’s most ardent defenders will, no doubt, lambaste me for even suggesting that the series is ever boring….but it is. I don’t mind doing a few chores to get to the good stuff, but I really think there’s a version of this show that never ever becomes a chore and I know Gould and Gilligan could pull it off.
OLD AND NEW TRICKS
Sticking with Saul, there are some interesting things that it does different from the show from which it originated. I love these little touches because it allows Saul to really stand out and find its own voice.
Something minor like using a different image for each week’s opening title card is a really cool way to add a little splash to a show about a decidedly splashy character. Of course, the show’s greatest distinction is its ability to do humor in a much more elaborate fashion than Bad reasonably could (which isn’t to say that Bad wasn’t often hilarious, because it was). But putting the show’s most colorful character at center stage allows us to see Saul (or Jimmy) at his most outrageous. The show’s pilot featured the laugh-while-you-cringe-case where Jimmy defended three young men who had filmed themselves having sex with a severed head (Jimmy’s defense? “Boys Being Boys”) and who could forget this season’s masterful execution of Jimmy’s “Hoboken squat cobbler” defense? Priceless.
With its lighter tone, Jimmy is able to go down roads Breaking Bad simply couldn’t. Walt and Skylar’s marriage was almost always fraught with tension (both before and after she found out the truth), but despite his screw-ups, Jimmy and Kim actually have a sweet thing going and it’s remarkably distinctive to see characters having some actual fun in this world.
I feel like Saul trips up the most when it tries to do things too similar to how Bad used to. The direction on Breaking Bad was always daring and innovative, choosing unique shots to tell its story with. I always felt liked that worked well for the show, but on Saul, those shots feel gratuitous and showy. While others were foaming at the mouth over that obnoxiously long tracking shot earlier this season, I couldn’t help but feel the show had overindulged a little bit.
Same goes for its use of montages, something else Bad very much liked to do. All of the montages on Saul look great but they often go on way too long and, I’m sorry, a montage showing drugs being manufactured and sold or simultaneous prison killings are just gonna hold my attention a lot better than a montage of Jimmy wearing a bunch of crazy suits or Kim scribbling on Post-its and calling every connection she has in order to secure a new client. A short montage of these tasks? Sure. But the show feels like it’s way too proud of itself in how flashy it can make these fairly dull activities….but they’re not making them as entertaining as they may think.
As for Fear The Walking Dead, this is a show with so much potential to present this zombie landscape in a new and exciting way, and it’s mostly failed. The show has grasped the same relentlessly brooding tone of the original, but again, without any great characters to root for and without even the slight shred of humor the original does manage to squeeze in.
By accelerating things far too quickly, we’re seeing zombies that look very much like the ones we’ve already seen in season one of TWD. Part of what makes the original so much fun are the insane set pieces it constructs that lands the show’s characters in trouble with zombies in new and exciting ways. There are so many scenarios Fear could have executed that featured zombies in fresh and exciting ways if they had spent more time focusing on life at the very beginning of the outbreak. Instead, the only thing the show can boast is that it’s shown us our first zombie in a bikini (the all-important “sexy zombie”) and set some of the zombie attacks at sea (which isn’t really all that different from on land, in case you were wondering).
The show’s biggest draw was creating an environment where it could function as a great family drama first and foremost (sort of like The Americans does in the spy world), but with all of its characters falling flat, any worth the show could get out of family relationships is lost (without a heaping dose of character rehab over the next few episodes). The show also decided to start right out of the gate depicting Nick detoxing during the start of the outbreak; somebody having withdrawals is almost never fun or interesting to watch and Fear, reliably, did not head down this path with any particular bit of innovation.
IMPACT ON ORIGINAL SHOW’S LEGACY
My accusations against Better Call Saul aside, it is a show that consistently finds high points to hit and it can suddenly transform into a really great, must-see show. It’s hard to say that any spin off is truly essential, but if Saul continues on the path it’s on, it will stand out as one of the best spin-offs of all time. Not as good as the show it spun from, mind you, but still very good TV. I’m excited about the arrival of Gus Fring (presumably next season) but I hope the show uses caution in relying too heavily on Breaking Bad characters. First off, it doesn’t need to, and secondly, that’s when this thing starts entering dangerous waters and could risk feeling kind of hokey. I love what Breaking Bad was for all those characters and I don’t want to taint anything by shoehorning them into Saul’s story, which is working just fine for the most part without them. So here’s hoping they tread carefully, in which case, Breaking Bad’s legacy is just fine.
The Walking Dead has already done plenty to damage its own legacy and although there are certainly instances where I wish it had gotten more critical attention (a few Emmy nominations for some stellar performances throughout the years woulda been nice), it’s ridiculously inconsistent and seems to really revel in jerking its audience around. Fear seems to just be exploiting that loyal fanbase by serving as an uninspired space saver in between The Walking Dead seasons. Unless it suddenly does something memorable, it will mostly be forgotten, but with so many others trying to also recapture TWD’s success, it does feel like another tedious bit of oversaturation and there is a chance that could affect The Walking Dead’s staying power to a certain degree. If I’m already annoyed at the Negan cliffhanger and then sat through weeks of the show’s dreadful spinoff, am I gonna burn out more quickly? Seems likely.
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