Yesterday some interesting news leaked from the world of television – the people at AMC are considering a Breaking Bad spinoff series that focuses on Saul Goodman, Walter and Jesse’s sleazy lawyer played by the great Bob Odenkirk. While the details for the spinoff are a little vague, it appears that the show will be a comedy.
I am conflicted about this idea; while the character of Saul is a fan favorite (this fan included), I am wary whenever a show decides to dip into their well and try to spin off a supporting character. Many times a character that excels when featured in small doses fails to flourish when forced into a starring role. The quirks and characteristics that make the character so appealing can become annoying or unpleasant with increased exposure. I think there is wisdom in leaving the viewer wanting more when it comes to particular character.
Spinning off a character from an existing TV show is dangerous business; the success rate for spinoffs is not particularly high. For every success story like Frasier, the television landscape is littered with failed spinoff attempts. For example, Joey Tribbiani was a pretty lovable character when featured as part of an ensemble on Friends, but when he got his own show and was pushed into the spotlight, Joey was barely watchable. NBC just passed this year on the Dwight-centric spinoff from The Office and based on the backdoor pilot that they aired, that was probably one of the only smart decisions that NBC has made in a while. Dwight is a great character when tempered with all the other characters at Dunder Mifflin; without those other people to share screen time and take the focus away, Dwight’s inherent weirdness was just too much to stomach on a regular basis. Some characters are garnish – they complement the main characters. They should not be considered the main course. A little of them goes a long way.
The trick is in picking the right character to spin off – the character should be someone that the viewers want to spend more time with, but that is not so potent that they can only work in concentrated and sporadic quantities. Frasier worked because the character was someone who had a definitive perspective but that is not saddled with overpowering characteristics. Frasier was not overused on Cheers and did not have the flamboyant personality as some of the other supporting characters. He provided the writers with more of a blank slate to work with and they were smart to put the character in a completely new situation and surround him with an excellent supporting cast. Frasier’s personality only really fully blossomed in the new sitcom; I remember being surprised at the time that he was the character that NBC has selected to feature in a new program, but retrospect and ratings proved that it was the best decision. Perhaps the folks over at Cheers learned from their previous missteps – while everyone remembers the success of Frasier, I doubt many people remember the monstrosity that was The Tortellis. In 1987, NBC aired a short-run spinoff of Cheers that focused on Nick Tortelli (Dan Hedaya), the scummy ex-husband of Cheer’s barmaid Carla (Rhea Perlman). Nick and his new wife Loretta (Jean Kasem) made several guest appearances on Cheers over the years, but they were basically one note characters. When made the focus of their own show, there was not enough depth to them to carry storylines and the show was pulled from NBC’s schedule after 5 months (full disclosure – I watched The Tortellis when it aired, but even at 11 I knew this was crap. But we didn’t have cable yet, so my TV options were limited).
Several shows have tested the water for a potential spinoff by creating a backdoor pilot similar to what the folks at The Office did with the potential Dwight spinoff, The Farm. A backdoor pilot is on the surface an episode of the original show, but that focuses on the characters and potential storylines of the proposed spinoff. Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, The Cosby Show and The Brady Bunch all used backdoor pilots to gauge interest in spinoffs that ultimately they did not go forward with. These episodes are easy to spot in retrospect, as on repeated viewing they seem to throw off the continuity of the original show and suddenly introduce a bunch of characters that are never heard from again. If you catch one of these backdoor pilots in syndication it can be jarring, as the starts of the “mother ship” program are often conspicuously missing in action and the whole thing feels a little off.
Norman Lear might have to be crowned the king of spinoffs as All in the Family spawned (directly and indirectly) 7 additional programs, with varying success. All in the Family begat Maude, The Jeffersons, Gloria, Archie Bunker’s Place and 704 Hauser. Maude and The Jeffersons then each had a spinoff, both ironically featuring the maid (Good Times and Checking In, respectively). Happy Days was also proficient in its attempts to spin off additional series, with Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy being the most profitable of the bunch (Joanie Loves Chachi, not so much). Most of these spinoffs were based on characters that only made a few select appearances on the show from which they were spun off from; Bea Arthur’s Maude only appeared on All in the Family two or three times and the characters of Laverne, Shirley and Mork only appeared on Happy Days once before getting their own individual series. In some ways, this seems to be the ideal way to go with a spinoff – use the platform of an already successful show to introduce new characters, but give them their own series and fully sketch them out in the confines of their own respective universe. Viewers got a taste of these characters to pique their interest, rather than trying to spin off a character that is already more established within the confines of the existing show.
I like Saul and I think that Bob Odenkirk is fantastic, but I worry that so much of what we enjoy about the character of Saul is that he provides some much needed comic relief from the tension on Breaking Bad. I’m not sure that I will have as much affection for the character in a straight up comedy. I do, however, have a lot of faith in the people behind Breaking Bad and I’d like to think that they wouldn’t even be considering this idea if there wasn’t something to it or if they didn’t think they could do it well. So I’ll take a wait and see approach to this proposed project and hope that it’s closer to Daria (a spinoff of Beavis and Butthead) and not Golden Palace (the ill-conceived Golden Girls sequel). I do worry that audiences and producers are unwilling to let some characters go and to continue to milk them for all that they are worth. Sometimes you just can’t recapture the magic of the original; I’d rather say goodbye to beloved characters while they are still beloved rather than tarnishing their memory with a poorly done or advised spinoff.
What are your favorite spinoffs? Any supporting characters that you would like to see get their own star vehicle? Sound off in the comments!