Is Better Call Saul the future of television?

It’s made for TV in America but only airs on Netflix in the UK – so what do the men behind the Breaking Bad spin-off think about the battle between old media and on-demand?

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When Better Call Saul began in February 2015, it was a risky prospect. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould had just come off an award-winning and critically-acclaimed streak as creator and head writer on Breaking Bad – a series many have cited as one of the greatest dramas ever made – and their immediate follow-up was a quirky spin-off based on a side character.

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A prequel set in the same world as their earlier series (which could surely only bring unfavourable comparisons), Better Call Saul focused on the earlier years of Breaking Bad’s corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) back when he went by his real name of Jimmy McGill and actually tried to do good things for his clients.

To some it seemed a strange sideways move, Gilligan and Gould eschewing new ideas to return to the well of their success but on a smaller scale. They were throwing out the subtly escalating evil of schoolteacher-turned drug kingpin Walter White and his ensuing turf war for a legal drama based on a comic relief actor (at one point, the series was even slated to run as a half hour comedy).

In short, many believed it wouldn’t work – but the creators and Odenkirk were sure it was a story worth telling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dH8jtfcEUiA

“I always felt like he had more life to him that we weren’t acknowledging,” says Odenkirk, who in person cuts a far suaver figure than his shabby-suited, combed-over lawyer. 

“The Saul I played in Breaking Bad was very two-dimensional at the most, maybe even one-dimensional.

“There’s a part of making the choice to be Saul Goodman that is a ‘fuck you’ to the world. So why does he say ‘fuck you’ to the world? That I don’t know.”

In the end the gamble paid off, with the series finding millions of viewers and being praised by critics worldwide, even making it onto many reviewers’ lists of top shows for 2015. Now, it’s back for a second season – and while it may or may not see long-awaited cameos from Breaking Bad leads Cranston and Aaron Paul, Odenkirk assures us that it will have plenty of its parent series’ DNA once more. 

“There are characters from Breaking Bad that come back in this season and they are gonna make you so happy and shock you and it’s really fun,” he teases. “It’s just really fun. There’s more story in season two, there are more plates spinning and that’s fun too. The tempo’s a little faster.”

So there’s plenty to look forward to for the UK’s Better Call Saul fans – but then again, compared to many other US imports those fans might be in shorter supply. You see, unlike in the States (where it airs on Mad Men network AMC), in the UK Better Call Saul is streamed exclusively on streaming service Netflix, with its lack of a mainstream TV broadcast arguably keeping it out of sight from the vast majority of viewers. 

But creators Gilligan and Gould say the Netflix deal was an easy choice after their struggle to find a UK audience for parent show Breaking Bad. Originally purchased by Channel 5, the drama languished on 5USA before it was dropped after just two seasons (which often aired in a significantly later time slot than in the States). The result was that for years UK viewers had no way of watching the hottest drama in the world, until Netflix swooped in to stream the final run of episodes in 2013.

“I went to visit my cousins in London and they had no idea what Breaking Bad was,” Peter Gould remembers now. “They happened to open Time Out and it had a little box that said something like, ‘the best show you can’t see on British television’ and I said ‘See! It’s that one right there!’ It was frustrating.”

Vince Gilligan is more direct. “If it wasn’t for Netflix, you would never have heard of Breaking Bad,” he says.

“You might’ve seen one or two episodes on terrestrial British television before it was cancelled but Netflix allowed everyone to catch up and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that.”

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Bob Odenkirk (centre) with Better Call Saul co-creators Peter Gould (left) and Vince Gilligan (right)

After the success of the team-up, a similar partnership between Netflix and Better Call Saul was almost inevitable – but despite despite the continuing relationship the team haven’t completely embraced the new world of on-demand. As opposed to Netflix’s usual method of releasing entire original series on a single day, Better Call Saul still drops one episode a week every Tuesday in line with its US airing. Gilligan compares the different styles as guzzling down your food versus savouring your meals, and series lead Odenkirk agrees.

“While we’ve all enjoyed binging and streaming a run of a show, there’s a dimension lost watching it once a week with the other fans of the show and enjoying the waiting, enjoying mulling over what happened,” he explains. “In the UK my show does play once a week, so you do experience it that way.” 

And this position of making a show for traditional broadcast that airs online to a traditional schedule gives the trio, I suggest to them, a unique in-between viewpoint on the ongoing question about where the future of broadcasting lies – on scheduled TV, where it’s been dominating for decades, or online through newer services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

In recent months this debate has intensified, with American network NBC claiming to have calculated that Netflix’s viewing figures – which the service does not make public – are far lower than their own (although Netflix creative chief Ted Sarandos describes the numbers as “remarkably inaccurate”). Meanwhile, fellow streaming service Amazon Prime recently outshone mainstream TV series to win two gongs at the 2016 Golden Globes for its comedy drama Mozart in the Jungle, following similar Golden Globe success for Netflix’s House of Cards and Emmy wins for Amazon drama Transparent. As time goes on, the contest is sure to become even more heated, with Netflix’s budget for its original programming reported to stretch to $5 billion in 2016, reflecting the company’s increasing desire to go toe-to-toe with the big American networks.

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Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul

Meanwhile, just like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, many big American shows such as Outlander or Extant are preferring to sell their rights to on-demand services, allowing viewers to watch their almost simultaneously with the American broadcasts and bypassing the traditional UK channels. So could on-demand eventually overcome traditional TV altogether?

“With something like Breaking Bad, you wouldn’t wanna hear about it and not be able to watch it,” Odenkirk says. “I think video-on-demand is the future.”

“Well, I’m the worst person to ask,” Gilligan tells me in his good ol’ boy southern accent. “I’m the guy who thought the internet would be a flash in the pan. I remember [while working on The X-Files] when people were saying ‘The X-Files is gonna have a website’ and I was like ‘What do you need that for?’”

“But I do think that in this case, streaming video on demand, some form of a-la-carte or on demand viewing, is probably the future.”

“The only fear is how it’s all going to be paid for if people don’t sit through the commercials. Are we going to get to a point where what used to be free television will now cost us all money, or if not money then something far worse – which is a complete loss of our privacy.”

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Odenkirk, Gould and Gilligan on the set of Better Call Saul

Gould agrees with Gilligan’s prognosis – and thinks another casualty could be variety of programming.

“The danger I think is that when you have the selection of everything in the universe, that people will just go to whatever is familiar to them,” he says. “It’s one of the things we need journalists for and websites, to help point the viewer at things which are new and interesting and also reassure them that it’s worth the investment.”

That said, both writers admit an attraction to the fact that on-demand allows creators to make shorter seasons of television (as they’ve imitated with the ten-episode Better Call Saul), and Gilligan says he’d be keen to make a series exclusively for the platform in the future. 

“I’d absolutely do something for Netflix,” he says. “From all accounts they do not insert themselves too vigorously into the creative process. They let the folks they hire tell the stories they wanna tell. So I’ve got nothing but good things to say about them.”

Better Call Saul star Odenkirk, meanwhile, has already taken the plunge in the form of Netflix-exclusive sketch show W/ Bob and David, which went out on the platform last year and which he describes as “an absolute blast” to make, also applauding the creative freedom Netflix gives to its programme-makers.

So perhaps the sort of uneasy coexistence found in Better Call Saul – a traditional show on an untraditional platform, created and brought to life by men who both love and fear online media – is a more accurate picture of broadcasting’s future. On-demand probably won’t replace the traditional TV model, just as TV won’t completely see off the far more convenient online upstart. They’ll just exist uneasily side-by-side, one not necessarily negating the other.

And perhaps over the coming years on-demand will eventually slot comfortably alongside TV, film and radio as just another way to tell a story. That’s certainly how Gilligan seems to see it.

“Right now, around the world people watch Better Call Saul any which way,” he says.

“Some people watch it in the old fashioned way, the way that appeals to me still. They wait week after week for each new episode to come out. Other people save them up on their DVRs and watch them all in one fell swoop. Or they wait until it comes on Netflix in the States or in the UK and rest of the world. I’m happy. I don’t care how people watch it.

“If they wanna stand on their heads whilst they watch that’s fine by me – just as long as they watch. I wouldn’t tell my stories in any different way.” 

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Better Call Saul series 2 is streaming on Netflix now