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Bob Odenkirk and the Cast of ‘Better Call Saul’ on the Challenges of Competing with ‘Breaking Bad’

Bob Odenkirk and the Cast of 'Better Call Saul' on the Challenges of Competing with 'Breaking Bad'

In the world of television, there’s nothing tougher than attempting a spinoff series. Lest we forget “Joey,” the infamous “Friends” spinoff that crashed and burned nearly the moment it was conceived, it would be safe to conclude that the prospects for TV spinoffs tend toward one unsuccessful season.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been exceptions. “Frasier,” “The Colbert Report,” and “NCIS” are three spinoffs that took flight of their own accord, becoming some of television’s most beloved shows. 

Which fate will meet “Better Call Saul”? The series, which begins seven years before the events of “Breaking Bad,” shares much of the same DNA as its predecessor: It’s created by “Breaking Bad” producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and set in Albuquerque, with much of the same below-the-line crew and that familiar dramatic yet stark cinematography. But the spinoff’s tone is notably divergent. Saul Goodman is a different kind of protagonist than Walter White: Unlike White, Saul isn’t an antihero. He’s much more sympathetic; his circumstances are more relatable. This lends a darker, more humanistic tone to the show, which may come as a surprise to many “Breaking Bad” fans, who think they know what to expect. 

Saul Goodman, a different kind of hero

“Saul Goodman is a hero,” said Bob Odenkirk. “He’s a superhero. Lime green socks, paisley yellow tie. His superpower is that he doesn’t quit.” According to Odenkirk, the Goodman you know from “Breaking Bad” isn’t quite the Goodman you’ll meet on the spinoff. “They’ve given him so many dimensions in this new show. I like him a lot. In ‘Breaking Bad,’ I wouldn’t say I liked that guy that much. If I met him, I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. Saul Goodman was always just the public face of this guy. It was always a show he was doing. Now we’re meeting him with his family, off the stage. We’re seeing a lot more sides to him.” 

“I didn’t want any input in the character development,” added Odenkirk. “One of the great things about acting is just giving yourself over to someone else’s vision. Not trying to control it, not trying to add to it, just going with what’s on the page.” 

“Bobby doesn’t know how good he is, and I really believe that,” said Jonathan Banks.

Mike gains complexity

What can we expect from the ever-enigmatic Mike in this new series? “Mike has always been a separate entity,” said Banks, who plays the character. “He’s off in his own world, with his own demons and the love of his granddaughter. That’s his only contact with the world, or any kind of normalcy.”
“You learn a lot more about Mike in ‘Better Call Saul,'” said Odenkirk. “Without giving too much away, there’s a very intense story where we just follow Mike and learn his past. And it’s incredible.”

Unlike Odenkirk, Banks felt a certain ownership over his character. “As far as the transition [from ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Better Call Saul’] goes, I don’t feel it’s a big challenge,” said Banks. “But as far as respecting my character — making sure that I’m true to Mike, that I bring the best that I can to that character — that will always be a challenge.”

“These writers are my friends, but there are times that I’ll say to them, ‘Mike wouldn’t say that, Mike wouldn’t do that,'” Banks continued. “And they’ll go, ‘Yes, he would.’ And we argue about it. You let me have that character over a period of years, and I begin to get my Mike.”

The birth of the spinoff

When Odenkirk spoke about the inception of “Better Call Saul,” he was careful to note that the decision was not his. “Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and everyone associated with this show took the choice very seriously,” he said. “For me, that boiled down to not pushing for this. I only wanted do to it if Vince and Peter genuinely wanted to explore this character. It was their choice. They certainly kicked it around for months. When ‘Breaking Bad’ ended, they said, ‘Yeah, we’re curious about this character.’ As long as we came from that organic place, that honest effort, then you go, ‘You guys have earned the right.'” 

Michael McKean, who plays Saul Goodman’s brother, signed onto the show before even reading the script. “I worked with Gilligan before on ‘X-Files,’ and we were looking for another reason to work together, so when this came along it had a very serendipitous feel. I said yes without reading anything.”

Competing with “Breaking Bad”

Odenkirk spoke candidly about the show’s expectations. “We all were thankful to be a part of ‘Breaking Bad.’ When something works in show business, you always feel that there’s a little bit of luck involved, no matter how hard you work. But it’s a bit scary. You want to do it right. You want to do right by the legacy of this great, great show. But you can’t compete with that thing.” He added that the introduction of binge-watching bolstered “Breaking Bad’s” success, and that “Better Call Saul” wouldn’t be able to compete with that kind of advantage. 

“There will be some people who will never forgive this show for not being exactly ‘Breaking Bad,'” said McKean. “But if it were, it’d be ‘Breaking Bad.’ I wouldn’t have a job!” 

Ultimately, the cast seemed relatively unconcerned with the show’s ability to meet its high expectations. Understandably, they were eager to move past the “Breaking Bad” hype and into the singular story of “Better Call Saul.”

Odenkirk was particularly confident about the projected audience reception. “I can’t believe the good will that I’m feeling from the audience,” he said. “I’m getting very little of the skepticism. It’s an honest effort, artistically. I do think it’s a unique show that will take a little while to really figure out.”

“When something stops for me, at this age, it stops,” explained Banks. “We’re talking about people I love. That I miss about ‘Breaking Bad.’ But things move on. I don’t care how maudlin that sounds; it’s true. The older you get, the more you realize that.”

“When you wet the bed, at first it’s warm, then it’s cold,” said a straight-faced McKean. “Things change.”

“When you think about doing a show after such a phenomenon as ‘Breaking Bad,’ a show that was so loved, you have to ask yourself if you’re doing this for the right reasons,” said Odenkirk. “For us, the answer was yes. So basically, your choice is to sit around addressing ‘Breaking Bad’ all day, or just forget it and tell your new story.”

Head over to 92Y  to watch the public interview with the cast of “Better Call Saul.”

READ MORE: ‘Better Call Saul’ Review: You Don’t Need Us to Tell You to Watch It

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