'Better Call Saul' vs 'Breaking Bad': How does the spinoff compare to the original?
'Better Call Saul' has come to its own over the past three seasons and is set to continue its run as one of television's premiere dramas with its fourth.
Our favorite opportunistic, bottom-feeding, two-timing, cockroach-esque, criminal lawyer Saul Goodman will be making his return to the small screen with 'Better Call Saul' come August 6 next month, but an enduring question remains: does the series hold a candle to its much-vaunted predecessor 'Breaking Bad'?
A straight-up comparison would throw out a clear winner in the latter, but the same could be said for a vast majority of the shows out there. Instead, with the premiere of the 10-episode fourth season now just a little under two weeks away, it's fairer to take a look into why the spinoff deserves its own pedestal next to the original and why it is still very much one of the best shows on television today.
'Better Call Saul' has held up the high standards and proved itself to be amongst the best season after season, and while comparisons do both the shows an injustice (when do spinoffs ever get the nod over the original?), they were still always going to be made. Luckily (or unluckily depending on how you view it), creator Vince Gilligan has ensured that those making any such comparison have their work cut out in coming to any definitive conclusion.
The final episode of the 3rd installment of 'Better Call Saul' aired on AMC last June and left viewers on a cliffhanger. The action-packed season finally saw things between Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) come to a head, with a taped confession from the former on how he had sabotaged the documents of a client HHM had been handling causing him to get banned from practicing law for a year; developments on the town's cartel front, with both Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) playing pivotal roles, and drug-runner Nacho (Michael Mando) copping significant air-time of his own; and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) developing tangential storylines which might prove consequential as the series progresses.
With events continuing at their current pace, we might finally get to see Jimmy's fully-fledged transformation into Saul Goodman; after all, season 3 did see the conniving, quick-witted, bottom-feeding lawyer sneak a peak out of his better half. Goodman's been just across the street all this time, showing up now and then during Jimmy's uncontrollable urges to trick, con, and slime-ball those around him, but now, the feeling is that he's just around the corner.
However, we wouldn't even have a Saul Goodman to place our illogical hopes on if it weren't for 'Breaking Bad.' The series about a struggling and depressed high school chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), diagnosed with lung cancer who manages to make his mark as Albuquerque's premier methamphetamine dealer captured the imaginations of not just a country, but a planet.
The general feeling on the show was best captured by critic Nick Harley, who on the conclusion of the show, summarized his commendation and wrote, "Expertly written, virtuosic with its direction, and flawlessly performed, Breaking Bad is everything you could want in a drama. Critics will spend the next decade dissecting and arguing about what made it great, but the reasons are endless and already well documented."
But when a spinoff was first hinted at by Gilligan in 2012, it was still met with a wave of hopeful optimism. After all, whatever Gilligan had touched in the former had turned to gold, and he put it in firm contention for the moniker of one of the greatest shows of the 21st century if not all-time, so couldn't he do the same with another? He had said then that he liked "the idea of a lawyer show in which the main lawyer will do anything it takes to stay out of a court of law," and so far, 'Better Call Saul' seems to have followed that MO to a T.
Set six years before Walter and partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) became the meth kingpins of New Mexico, 'Better Call Saul' follows Jimmy's transformation into the criminal-for-hire who endeared himself to audiences as the duo's advisor-in-chief. The show also delves into the backstories of other characters like Mike, Gus, and Hector, effectively serving as a springboard that elevated them into relevance in Albuquerque's thriving, seedy underbelly.
So far, the series has done excellently to retain some of the elements that had made its predecessor such a barnstorming success — excellent casting with the larger-than-life characters not confined to one-dimensional arcs, a bleakness and gloominess belied through dark humor, and of course, Albuquerque itself, rarely given the credence it deserves for the part its played in serving as the all-important backdrop for Gilligan's madness.
It would be an understatement to say that 'Better Call Saul' has been a success. Praised for its acting, writing, and direction, it has deemed as the rightful heir to the 'Breaking Bad' throne and has seen itself nominated for a Peabody, 23 Primetime Emmy Awards seven Writers Guild of America Awards, five Critics' Choice Television Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and two Golden Globe Awards. Furthermore, to this day, the series premiere holds the record for the highest-rated scripted series premiere in basic cable history.
While one could credit feat to the tearjerker that was the 'Breaking Bad' series finale and the urge it cultivated to dive back in for answers, Gilligan has ensured that its follow-up can stand on its own two feet without being overshadowed by the series that spawned it. The fact that it has maintained its wow-factor and consistency so steadfastly is yet another feather in its cap; too many series start off strong only to taper off as the seasons churn by (The Walking Dead anyone?).
Quite a few of the fans, myself included, will admit we took the show up expecting it to follow a tone similar to that of 'Breaking Bad,' and were initially left disappointed to find the meek, diffident Jimmy McGill instead of his alter-ego. I, for one, will gladly admit I'm now pleased the series didn't take that particular direction. Instead, it starts from scratch, giving audiences the chance to fall in love with each character all over again and forces you to throw these preconceived notions of the characters out the window. The result is a delightful drama that doesn't require one be versed in the lore of the original and still manages to deliver its fair share of thrills and frills.
But here's the thing, despite everything it has going for it, it was nigh on impossible it would ever surpass or come close to surpassing 'Breaking Bad.' By the time the final season rolled around, it was one of the most-watched cable shows on television. And while 'Better Call Saul' has been nominated for its fair share of awards, it doesn't hold a candle to acclaim and accolades of the original — 16 Primetime Emmy Awards, eight Satellite Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Peabody Awards, two Critics' Choice Awards, and four Television Critics Association Awards.
Almost each and every episode of the show is a carefully-crafted masterpiece, a showcase on the art of storytelling and suspense. And this is exactly why any comparison, while inevitable, is unfair. Odenkirk and the rest have poured their blood, sweat, and tears in giving life to an excellent spinoff that in any other context, would quite possibly find itself on a list for the best shows of the century as well. However, its association with 'Breaking Bad' will ensure it will rarely if never, see such an honor.
'Better Call Saul' set off with the lofty ambition of matching the legendary status of its predecessor, and there's little shame in it being unable to do so. Instead, it can take pride in not riding the original's coattails for ratings and recognition and ensuring it has carved a path for itself. It may not go down as one of the greatest shows of all-time, but it may certainly go down as one of the greatest spin-offs, which is quite the achievement in itself.