“Success can paralyze you way more than failure, in my opinion,” Vince Gilligan confesses while sitting in his Glendale office surrounded by Better Call Saul fan art. Fellow BCS executive producer Peter Gould and the show’s star Bob Odenkirk are sitting nearby. “I keep thinking of that old analogy that you’ve got to get back up on the horse after it throws you, the thought of when I do something again, it better be damn good. It better be better than the last show, the last success,” the Breaking Bad creator adds, characteristically flipping the usual connotations of the expression.
“Of course you never have a crystal ball. You don’t know whether or not it’s going to blow up in your face, but fear is never a reason not to do something,” he says. “I knew I had to get back up on the horse.”
That kind of gumption is part of what wins you the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series two years in a row, as AMC’s Breaking Bad did in 2013 and 2014. It’s also the kind of mojo that conjures up a series like Better Call Saul from one of Bad’s most magnetic characters without missing a step, putting you in the running once again.
“At a certain point, luck takes a hand on how you repeat success,” offers Gilligan on the melody of ratings, acclaim and Emmy possibilities for BCS. “How do you walk into the 7-Eleven after you won the lottery and buy another lottery ticket and expect it to be a winner too?” he asks, evoking a cold-headed correlation to Odenkirk’s pre-Saul alter ego Jimmy McGill’s bingo-calling meltdown from the show’s first-season finale. “You don’t if you’re rational, but your emotions always take a hand in this.”
Emotions aside, the odds for the same creator to have a successful back-to-back series and spinoff are extremely small. In drama, Gilligan is in good company, as 10-time Emmy winner David E. Kelley accomplished the rare feat with The Practice and Boston Legal, both landing multiple best series nominations and The Practice winning in 1997.
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In the case of Better Call Saul, timing has played a big role in how Gilligan and company ended one show and started another.
“That’s a large part of the reason Breaking Bad ended when it did,” Gilligan says of the Bryan Cranston-led series’ 2013 conclusion. “I worry a lot about not knowing when to quit, and we didn’t want to mess up a good thing.” Wanting to do a spinoff of a hugely successful series did not come easy. “In the case of Saul, Peter and I took a great many long walks around the neighborhood of our old Breaking Bad offices in Burbank, and we talked this through in minute detail,” Gilligan says. “ ‘What are the pitfalls? Is this a good idea?’ In the end we felt that it was a new thing and had opportunities for differentiation.”
Set six years before the chaos and circumstances of Breaking Bad, the prequel paints how the ambitious but decent McGill became the “hermetically sealed slickster” of Saul Goodman, as Gould succinctly defines him. As fans saw from BCS’ February 8 debut, the art is in all the elements that went on the canvas—some more sordid, some more sorry than others. And with Odenkik leading the ensemble, which includes Michael McKean and Bad alum Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul is definitely populist art. Having premiered with record-breaking ratings, BCS proved to be cable’s top new series of the season in total viewers and both the 18-49 and 25-54 demos.
“There’s an incredible amount of confidence in this character, and the tone of the show is so different from Breaking Bad,” says Odenkirk, to nods from the producers. “The biggest surprise to me, and I might be cynical, is people’s willingness to get to know this character in a new way and in new scenarios.”
Says Gilligan: “I meet people all the time who say, ‘I hear Breaking Bad was great, but I saw an episode one time and it was a little too violent, a little too dark for me. I never really got into it, but I really love this new show.’ I love hearing that.” Gould seconds the appeal of the fresh tone of BSC and the responsibilities it brings: “It’s something that opens up all sorts of new possibilities for us, but it also puts the onus on us to have the world of Jimmy McGill make sense to fans of Breaking Bad, too.”
With writing completed on over half of the second season set to debut in 2016, Gould admits now that the spinoff had wry origins in long nights. “It was a writer’s joke on Breaking Bad that there would be a Saul Goodman show,” the EP laughs. “Our first idea was to take the Goodman persona, where he has a different crazy client each week. It sounded like fun, but ultimately, it didn’t feel like something that would be right for us.”
The show that did emerge is, for all its freshman success, still a work in progress. “We didn’t have this whole backstory for this guy figured out during the Breaking Bad years, and indeed, we didn’t have it figured out for most of last season,” says Gilligan. “I’m always reluctant to put it this way, but we are making it up as we go along.” Adds Odenkirk, “I looked at the beginning of Better Call Saul as a blank slate because I didn’t know anything about his personal life, who he was when he went home and where he grew up. All we knew of him was that he was a sleazeball who never quit. But now we know him as a good guy who never quits, a more dimensional person and a more likable cockroach.”
“Even now, I don’t have much of a clue as to how he’s going to become Saul Goodman, but that doesn’t scare me,” says Gilligan in response, sitting in one of the rooms where a lot of that creation will place. “When I think back on Breaking Bad, I realize that I didn’t really understand Walter White’s character until season four,” he says with a tinge of amazement.
That process of discovery on Better Call Saul actually has sparked Gilligan’s deeper than expected involvement with the show. “Peter and I were 50-50 from the get-go on this, but what I pictured would happen was that I would gradually start to detach from it because Peter is more than capable of running this show by himself, and I would drift on to do something else after the first seasons,” Gilligan reveals. “One of the best surprises for me was that I was so satisfied creatively by the first season of the show that I wanted to stay as involved for season two.”
So, with the great critical and ratings response to BCS, plus Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut character growing in significance with his own backstory, are there more spinoffs planned from the backstreets of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where both Bad and BCS take place?
“It’s always dangerous to say never, but I think when we put this one to bed, it’ll be time for me to do something else,” laments Gilligan. “You want to see what else you have in you as a writer. But I got to tell you, I’m having more fun on this show than I thought I would.”
That’s a winning lottery ticket all its own.
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