Writing for TV: Better Call Saul Pilot
With the success of Breaking Bad, it was guaranteed that a spin-off of sorts would come to life. Although most people are hesitant about spin-offs, no one can deny the genius that ended up being Better Call Saul. Though the appeal of Breaking Bad led to the creation of Better Call Saul, the show could easily stand on its own.
Nevertheless, below will discuss what made this show great, particularly the pilot. We’ll highlight its ability to not rush into the story, using familiar characters, quirky characters, powerful lines, etc. By the end, you’ll understand why this show is a perfect example to analyze for writing for TV.
Still from 'Better Call Saul'. Photo credit: IGN Sea
Standing On Its Own
From the start, Better Call Saul is equipped as a show that can stand on its own. That is a challenging task, mainly since it’s derived from such a popular show. Rather than using the nostalgia or success of the previous show, it stands separate.
That is a massive lesson for all novice screenwriters. Though it’s not common for first-time writers to get access to a derivative work or adaptation early on, it’s worth mentioning. Don’t rely on the subject's popularity for the script you’re writing.
The primary advice is to craft a story that can stand independently. Better Call Saul is a perfect example of this because it doesn’t have constant flash-forwards of Walter White or Jesse. Instead, it builds the character of Jimmy McGill and how he became Saul Goodman.
Don’t Rush Into the Story
As with so many other great shows, Better Call Saul does a great job of taking its time. It’d be straightforward for a show like this to jump into the craziness that is Saul Goodman. Rather than take that angle, the show starts slow, showing who Saul was before he became Saul.
We get to see Jimmy McGill in 2002 and how he was a struggling public defender in New Mexico. We meet his brother Chuck and the attractive character trait of being a hermit with electromagnetic hypersensitivity. The story then lashes us into the intensity of Breaking Bad with the closing scenes of Tuco Salamanca.
As Breaking Bad fans, we’re blown away by the presence of Tuco, but we weren’t rushed into it. Instead, the show took its time, introducing us to who Saul was years prior and how he ended up where he was during Breaking Bad. Since the show ended up having six seasons, it makes sense to have this pace.
Using Familiar Characters
With Better Call Saul being a prequel from such a popular show, it’d be straightforward for the script to rely on familiar characters and nothing else. Although the show uses plenty of familiar characters, they’re shown in a light that varies from the original material of Breaking Bad.
For example, with Saul, we’re introduced to him when he was a struggling public defender caring for his brother. Demonstrating a main side character with Saul allows us to see him interact with different characters than someone like Walter White or Jesse.
Quirky Characters with Even Quirkier Backgrounds
Although Breaking Bad falls under this category, Better Call Saul increases the quirky character angle to the max. We see Jimmy McGill as the struggling public defender beginning his antics with the twins Lars and Cal. It’s the beginning stages for Jimmy as he becomes who we know from Breaking Bad.
Utilizing quirky characters in a storyline like Better Call Sault helps the audience laugh and connect, despite the darker subject matter. Though the first episode isn’t as dark as to future episodes, the opening shot has a sense of isolation and abandonment we’re not used to seeing Saul in.
Utilizing Powerful Lines
Though it doesn’t come in the first episode, the “You’re not a real lawyer.” line from later in the season sums up the show perfectly. Jimmy has an internal conflict of not obtaining the ideal wealth and luxury of being a lawyer. He’s forced into shaking the books and going the other way to obtain said goals.
The powerful lines of the story run rampant with the central motif of Jimmy trying to accomplish something. He lives in a crummy apartment, is barely getting any work, and has a brother who refuses to leave his house. It’s the opposite of what most associate with a lawyer, especially someone as prominent as Saul Goodman.
Beginning with a Cold Open
The first episode does an excellent job of beginning with a cold open. For those who don’t know, a cold open jumps into a story at the show’s beginning before the title sequence or opening credits. We see Saul living as Gene, a manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. The show quickly flashes back to Saul’s previous life and his transition from Jimmy to Saul, eventually transitioning into Gene.