TV Talk #2: Prequelitis

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Previously on TV Talk...

It's kind of a weird coincidence that two of my favorite shows on television right now are both prequels, especially given my generally low opinion of the genre. Let's face it, apart from a couple outliers, has there ever been a decent prequel? Like, ever? By and large, "prequel" is synonymous with "lazy cash-in", ranking somewhere between "dark and gritty reboot" and "splitting the final book in a series into two movies" on the creatively bankrupt hack-o-meter. Heck, more than a few of the "good" prequels on my good prequel list don't even bother to admit they're prequels, like they, too, recognize the implied crappiness of the form.
So, yeah. Hannibal and Better Call Saul. Both shows are really, really good, both shows are prequels, and what I find the most interesting is that they represent a totally different approach to the concept, while still adhering to the fundamental rules of what makes a good prequel.

In order to make a good prequel, two parameters really need to be met, in my mind:
  1. It has to, through the adding of context or the expansion of lore, lend depth to, provide commentary on, and/or deconstruct the parent work. (This one's easy to get right)
  2. It has to tell a compelling and worthwhile story wholly independent of the parent work. (This is where most prequels run into trouble. The most [in]famous one in recent memory, the Prequel Trilogy, is, while not nearly as bad as its reputation, basically three movies of buildup to that shot of Darth Vader being lifted up on the slab like Frankenstein's monster. It's a cool shot -- very atmospheric, very moody -- and it means absolutely nothing if you don't already know who Darth Vader is.)
Hannibal and Better Call Saul, at least in my mind, accomplish both of these -- Will Graham's homoerotic, increasingly disturbed relationship with his 'innocuous' therapist Hannibal Lecter and his tireless hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper casts a lot of Thomas Harris' famous novels in a brand-new light, and it stands as its own story even if you've never read or seen Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs (I know, because I haven't!). Better Call Saul's story of the war for "Slippin' Jimmy" McGill's soul works as a nice companion piece to Walter White's fall from grace, changes a lot of what we know about "Saul Goodman" and his steely cohort Mike Ehrmentraut, and seems very consciously designed to work on its own apart from Breaking Bad.

But where BCS is, for all its surprises, a fairly conventional origin/prequel narrative, Hannibal utterly demolishes the parent work upon which it is based. Everything is up for grabs -- relationships are rewritten, events happen out of order, and characters established as alive further on in the series' continuity are killed off willy-nilly. This makes it work in two ways -- first off, it makes it seriously unpredictable, as a knowledge of the books no longer gives you knowledge of the show's future. Second, it actually liberates it to delve even deeper into the ideas in its parent work; instead of concerning itself with slavishly following established canon, it can use and twist that canon and its characters to find new stories and ideas. Canon is already a pretty fluid concept these days anyway, and while this approach wouldn't work with every show (and certainly wouldn't gel with, say, Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul's dusty, lived-in Albuquerque realism), it definitely works here given the series' impressionistic, nightmarish nature.

Better Call Saul, by contrast, works not by restitching the fabric of the series canon, but by finding the intriguing empty spaces in that canon and filling them in not with a rote connect-the-dots story, but rather with a whole bunch of new stories in that universe. Sure, there is a bit of spurious continuity nodding in the early going -- the stylish cold open of the first episode is kinda baffling without knowledge of Saul's ultimate fate in Breaking Bad, and the early inclusion of fan-favorite villain Tuco Salmanca is neat but feels unnecessary besides "hey! It's this guy again! He isn't dead yet!" -- but those things don't detract from the season's running narratives. I'm of the opinion that BCS works as a plucky lawyer dark comedy/crime drama just as well as another chapter of the Breaking Bad saga. And, actually, knowledge of Breaking Bad makes BCS more uncertain: so much of the first season has been about Jimmy/Saul's troubled relationships with his eccentric brother and his way-more-successful-than-him ex-girlfriend, so why aren't either of them mentioned at all in BB? What happens to them goddamn it Vince Gilligan quit playing games with my heart!

The common thread between these two prequels, of course, is a simple truth that a surprising amount of fiction seems to miss: any good story needs to justify its own existence. What makes most prequels (and reboots, and remakes, etc.) not work is that they seem to only exist because of a brand name, or a franchise, or some backroom rights deal -- seriously, can you imagine another reason for this crap to exist beyond "because money"? If your story's only reason for being is to try and capture or emulate the success of another better-loved, better-told story, then you might want to stop, go back to the drawing board, and ask yourself why you're bothering to tell it at all. And no, "because money" isn't an acceptable answer.

(You know, probably. I don't have enough of the stuff to really know for sure.)


P.S. I might want to come up with a snappier and more original name for this column if I'm going to keep doing it. Hmmm... "TV Twednesdays"? "Wednesday Pick Nits"? "Some White Guy on the Internet Has Opinions About Community and Breaking Bad and Cordially Invites You to Read All About Them (or SWGOTIHOACABBACIYTRAAT, you know, for short)? What do you folks think?


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