“Better Call Saul” is not Vince Gilligan’s first spinoff rodeo. The “Breaking Bad” creator’s new show has more than a few parallels with the last spinoff he worked on, “The Lone Gunmen” in 2001.
One thing it won’t have, fortunately for Gilligan, is as short a life. AMC has already renewed “Saul” for a second season — even though it doesn’t premiere until Sunday (Feb. 9) — which is one more than “The Lone Gunmen” got on FOX. Gilligan retians fondness for the show — “I still think in my heart of hearts that FOX missed a trick by not re-upping it for a second season,” he said at the summer 2014 TV press tour — and the pilot holds up better than you might remember (you can watch the full thing below; be warned that the story, which aired in March 2001, six months before 9/11, hinges on a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center).
Watching “Saul,” however, it seems as though Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould have taken a few lessons from the “Lone Gunmen” experience that will help them keep their new show going.
‘Lone Gunmen’s’ fatal flaw
When “The Lone Gunmen” premiered, “The X-Files” was still airing. Spinoffs running parallel to their parent shows is not usually an issue — otherwise there wouldn’t be three different “NCIS” series on the air now and multiple “Law & Orders” and “CSIs” dotting their respective networks in the recent past.
Those shows, however, are more about transporting a franchise to a new locale or a different police unit. “The Lone Gunmen” attempted to show a different corner of the established “X-Files” world, and it one that was ultimately less interesting to viewers than the original. There was precious little overlap with the main “X-Files” world — Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) appeared in a couple of episodes, and David Duchovny made an uncredited appearance in the final episode as Mulder, but the show suffered from that sense of detachment.
“Saul,” meanwhile, isn’t trying to show viewers what Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) gets up to when Walt and Jesse aren’t around. It’s set in the same Albuquerque as the one they inhabit, but it takes place in the early 2000s, when Walter White is still a healthy but vaguely dissatisfied chemistry teacher and Jesse Pinkman is just a punk kid getting high out back at Walt’s school.
Knowing where Jimmy ends up — first as the cockroach-like Saul, and ultimately on his way to “a Cinnabon in Omaha,” as he says in the next-to-last episode of “Breaking Bad” — could be a different kind of complication down the road for the show. For now, removing the “Breaking Bad” principals from the equation feels like a smart move and one that will let “Better Call Saul” stand more on its own.
Products of their times (and networks)
Although “The Lone Gunmen” pilot is a pretty solid (re)introduction to the characters and the world they inhabit, it feels very much of a piece with countless other broadcast-network shows of the era — a little heavy on the exposition and case-solving elements and light on character development and visual flair. It’s well-shot and has the same shadowy aesthetic that a lot of “X-Files” episodes employed, but formally it’s very much a network show.
“Better Call Saul,” meanwhile, opens with a nearly wordless, black-and-white sequence (details of which are better left to viewers to discover) that could stand on its own as a lyrical short film, along with other striking compositions throughout. The series premiere has a bit of exposition too, but it flows more naturally from the story and doesn’t assume viewers need to have their hands held. There’s a confidence and freeness to it that stems from AMC knowing what Gilligan, Gould and the cast and crew are capable of and letting them do it.
The character question
As well-liked as The Lone Gunmen were by “X-Files” fans, they weren’t nearly as central to the parent show as Saul was to “Breaking Bad.” Byers, Langly and Frohike appeared in 36 of “The X-Files'” 202 episodes — not quite 20 percent. Saul Goodman, meanwhile, was around for 43 of the 62 hours of “Breaking Bad” and was much more central to the story. Even Jonathan Banks, who reprises his role as Mike Ehrmantraut in “Better Call Saul,” appeared in nearly half of “Breaking Bad’s” episodes.
This factor isn’t really in Gilligan and Co.’s control, but it may be the biggest advantage “Better Call Saul” has. It arrives on AMC almost a year and a half after “Breaking Bad” ended and with the parent show’s goodwill nearly unsullied, give or take a little resentment about the way it ended. “The Lone Gunmen,” meanwhile, came along near the end of Season 8 of “The X-Files,” when ratings had started to fade and some long-time fans were growing frustrated with the show’s byzantine mythology.
Watch “The Lone Gunmen” pilot below. “Better Call Saul” premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Sunday, Feb. 8 on AMC, the moves to 10 p.m. Mondays starting Feb. 9.