Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What does it take to make a good prequel TV series? (And feel free to include an example of a show that got it right or wrong.)
Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider
A prequel TV series is the most successful when it uses familiar touchstones but creates its own world. “Hannibal” is probably the best example of this, where there were characters we recognized but the setting, experience, and modern time period were completely Bryan Fuller’s (wonderfully so). “Bates Motel” has been another positive example, especially as it nears its end. The time period is again modernized, but it keeps a surreal and retro feel. And whereas we might have expected the series to end with a rehashing of “Psycho” (which it would have been well within its right to do), instead it used that familiarity to subvert our expectations, taking us in a completely new direction. It’s like an Earth-2 version of “Psycho,” and it’s been great.
While I also love “Better Call Saul,” its role as a directly linked prequel (not just the same characters but the same actors, settings, etc) has also hampered it. A show can find new ways to play up the stakes of its narrative even with viewer knowledge of what is to come — so it’s not about when or if Jimmy becomes Saul, but how and why — but “Saul” is always best when it distances itself from its “Breaking Bad” eventuality. Characters like Tuco showing up are far less effective than Jimmy’s relationship with the likes of Kim and Chuck, which provide devastatingly emotional moments in the series. It’s a very different, and much quieter story, but it has successfully expanded “Breaking Bad’s” universe in an interesting way — even if many fans keep pushing for it just to turn into more its source material.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
This is tricky because some may see the superhero origin shows like “Arrow” and “The Flash” as prequels to the main-event tales, while others may stick to only programs set before the shows that technically follow them, like “Better Call Saul” or “Fear the Walking Dead.” For me, I’m a little bi-prequel: It can be set before the original show and still play with canon, as “Gotham” has been doing for the past three seasons. Originally set up as the early years of Commissioner Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the show has abandoned particular timelines of (and several relationships between) Batman’s villains to form a narrative that, while establishing Gotham City as a crime-ridden dumpster fire in need of a masked vigilante that will eventually arrive, stands on its own as a tale divorced from its source material. I dig the hell out of how much fun they are having being “in” the pre-Batman world without having to stick to certain strictures locked down by 75 years of comic-book storylines. For a more straightforward prequel, I always thought “Caprica” wasn’t given enough time to develop into the lead-up to “Battlestar Galactica.” They had a lot of politics and family dynamics to slog through before getting to the good stuff…the invention of the Cylons, which should have been where things started. I miss that show.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
Everyone will probably note the current prequel gold standard of Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan’s brilliant “Better Call Saul,” the prequel to “Breaking Bad.” But I am going to veer off in a direction towards sci-fi, and salute “Caprica,” which is a story that preceded the hit series “Battlestar Galactica” about 60 years.
Ronald D. Moore’s drama was rich, near-Shakespearean, between two warring families, the Greystones and the Adamas. An act of terrorism has tragic effects on both these families, and the resulting action from that tragedy has a profound effect on the future for humanity. Moore’s excellent array of characters touched on relevant social commentary that still resonates in our time. It was done in a less abstract way and as heavy-handed as “Battlestar.”
A lot of this is thanks to the casting of Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales along with Alessandra Torresani, Paula Malcomson, Magda Apanowicz, and Sasha Roiz. all of whom turned in wonderful work that made for a great prequel. You didn’t have to be a sci-fi genre nerd to love the series.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
It’s been over 15 years, but I’m still genuinely angry about how bad “Star Trek: Enterprise” was. The basic concept — returning “Star Trek” to a more rugged ethos by chronicling the pre-Federation days of Starfleet — could have been great. But for some reason this devolved the franchise’s inherent idealism to a series rooted in xenophobic macho attitudes. As a young woman who grew up loving tough female characters like Kira, Dax, Janeway, and Torres, my heart broke watching the pilot, when I realized that “Enterprise’s” two female crew members were, respectively, a meek translator and Vulcan T’Pol, whose only relief from Seven of Nine-esque skintight jumpsuits came when she was forced to take a “decontamination shower” with Tripp. (Yes, Tripp was also in boxer shorts, but the camera did not slowly pan over his exposed skin quite as often.)
There were other major issues with the series, but “Enterprise” overall represented a major step backwards for one of sci-fi’s most progressive universes; a fundamental betrayal of what had come before that later seasons of the show totally failed to compensate for. Just because you’re a prequel doesn’t mean you have to completely regress the thematic elements of your series as well, if those thematic elements have been a major underpinning from the beginning.
Captain Archer did have a puppy, though. That was cute. Porthos now and forever, always.
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
The most difficult balancing act a prequel has to pull off is telling a new story that’s just as good as the original while embodying all the things that made you love the first work. That’s why many spinoff shows like “The Good Fight” and “Major Crimes” just plopped a new star into already established casts and situations – that’s a much easier row to hoe. It’s also why prequels like “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “The Carrie Diaries” and “Gotham” have stunk up television so badly. None of these shows’ stories matched the original material and couldn’t really feature any recognizable version of the original characters (“Enterprise” had no Kirk and Spock, “Gotham” has a pre-tween Bruce Wayne and “Carrie Diaries” tried a version of “Sex and the City” with the main characters in high school. Ugh.) “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman often said the least interesting part of zombie movies is how the zombies spread – which is why he skipped it in the mothership series. So I’ve always wondered why – besides the money and ratings, of course — he let AMC talk him into making a prequel series, “Fear the Walking Dead,” which mostly proves his original instinct was right. But “Better Call Saul” hit its stride when it leaned into its prequel status and began showing us how several major characters on “Breaking Bad” broke badly before they ever met Walter White. We’ve gotten a compelling new series with inspired callbacks to the old mothership and the same quirky excellence that made “Breaking Bad” such a must see. Easy peasy…at least, for some of the most talented TV producers of our time.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com
Prequels require a certain type of deconstruction, and as much as I love the joyful absurdity of “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” no show has mastered it better than “Better Call Saul.” Saul accomplishes the two main and difficult prequel tasks: enhancing a story you know the ending to and being a satisfying, brilliant beast that can stand on its own. It does this by taking what we already know — Saul Goodman and his ridiculous sleaziness and vice versa — and turning it on its head. Saul is at its core a tragedy of a profoundly sad man who just wants to do good, and Jimmy McGill’s (d)evolution into Saul Goodman is now a painful inevitability that can still surprise. And you can’t ask more from a prequel than that.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
On one hand, the answer is as easy as, “They have to basically stand on their own, regardless of the show that came after.” So “Better Call Saul” may function better if you have some sense of where the story goes through “Breaking Bad,” but the show’s rhythms and most successful character dynamics are almost entirely its own. In that respect, “Saul” thrives by giving us a prequel to a character who, while well liked, was comfortably off to the side, far enough that we were surprised by how many unanswered questions we had about him. But then there’s something stranger, like what “Bates Motel” has done, where I don’t know if the show was all that good when it built around those questions I didn’t know I wanted answers. For the most part, it turned out that I didn’t know I wanted to know about the marijuana trade in White Pine Bay because… I didn’t. But what “Bates Motel” did that was special was that when it got around to answering the questions I *did* have, it nailed it. Like the whole series hinged on “How did Norma Bates actually die?” and damned if the execution wasn’t far better than I could have expected. But really, the best thing a prequel series can do is make all of the beloved characters in the real series into babies with superficial similarities to said beloved characters. All hail “Muppet Babies,” king of the TV prequel.
Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club
A good TV prequel provides some value to a franchise by telling its own unique stories with familiar characters in a familiar world. A good TV prequel provides the framework of an origin story, but doesn’t get lost in the weeds of connecting every last detail. A good prequel doesn’t make excuses for a character who disappears later in the timeline. And, if it’s lucky, a good TV prequel is inspired by a musical sequence from the boffo musical hit of 1984, “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” I speak, of course, of the only TV prequel that mattered before “Better Call Saul”: “Muppet Babies.” How successful was this show? Well, there was a period of CBS Saturday-morning programming when “Muppet Babies” and “Pee-Wes’s Playhouse” basically comprised the whole lineup, during which competing networks and studios rushed to “babyfy” their own intellectual property. But “Muppet Babies” had “The Flintstone Kids,” “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo,” and even “Tiny Toon Adventures” all beat, putting the personalities introduced on “The Muppet Show” to new comedic ends, and dropping those characters into archival live-action footage that, unfortunately, prevents the series from ever getting a proper DVD or streaming release. I owe everything I know about costumed vigilantes and opera to the episode “Sing A Song Of Superheroes,” so I guess a good TV prequel is educational, too.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
TV’s “best” prequel is probably “Cheers,” that beloved prequel to the equally beloved “Frasier,” which delves into how Frasier got to the point where he would move back in with his father in Seattle. It features such memorable characters as Sam Malone, Diane Chambers, Norm Peterson, and, of course, Frasier Crane.
But I presume you’re asking me for a show which was deliberately constructed as a prequel, and in that event, TV is surprisingly robust with solid-to-great answers. The real answer is probably “Better Call Saul,” which both embraces what made “Breaking Bad” great and runs far away from it in pursuit of something else entirely, but I want to toss a special mention to “Bates Motel,” which I kinda hated in its first season, but which grew on me to the extent that its currently airing fifth and final season has proved to be one of my favorite shows on the air. Making a series about what Norman Bates was up to before the events of “Psycho” smacks of being a bad idea, since it will either have to be about pointless, sadistic violence and/or hotel management. Don’t get me wrong — a show about either could work, but it would probably have to be built from the ground up, not based on an iconic film.
Yet “Bates” has done a great job of balancing both of those ideas with a smart sense of what it means to love and care for someone who is deeply damaged. The relationship between Norman and his mother, Norma, is one of the better parent-child relationships on TV. The film posited Norma as a horrible, overbearing monster, but the series instead suggests she was the opposite kind of bad mother — someone who loved her child too much to properly deal with what was obviously wrong with him. Norman’s mental illness becomes the series’ center: something everybody knows about but nobody wants to talk about. And the longer it goes undiscussed, the more it consumes everything around it.
Some other good prequels: “Joey” prequel “Friends,” “Lou Grant” prequel “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “Gloria” prequel “All in the Family.”
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx
A prequel needs to have both a reason to exist beyond extending the brand, and an interesting story to tell to cover the length of a series. “Hannibal” very smartly recognized that “Red Dragon” (book and movies) only briefly touched on Will Graham’s discovery and capture of Hannibal Lecter, and that that would be meaty enough material to fill several seasons. “Bates Motel” has done great work exploring the psychology of Norman Bates in the way that “Psycho” never could, but it’s also had long aimless stretches where it didn’t know how to be a TV show until Norma had died off. (This season’s been great.) “Better Call Saul” backed into its purpose — Peter Gould has said the plan was for Jimmy McGill to become Saul Goodman perhaps by the end of the first season — but the story of Jimmy failing in his quest to be a good person is, much as I enjoy the Mike Ehrmantraut half of the show, far more complex and interesting than if this had been purely “Breaking Bad: The Early Years.”
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
The main obstacle facing a prequel is the element of surprise. While television is a character-based medium, which allows audiences to spend exorbitant amounts of time with a show’s subjects compared to film (and even many novels), most series still follow a linear plot, and that story needs to pay off. So a prequel needs to either a) upend expectations by promising a new twist or new ending built specifically for their story, a la “Bates Motel,” or b) reframe the original story by revealing pertinent information during the prequel series, a la “Gotham,” or c) simply track new characters at a time pre-dating the original series, like “Fear the Walking Dead.” (Its problems don’t lie in the set-up.)
What’s interesting to me about “Better Call Saul” — and why I personally struggle to keep up with the formally magnificent drama — is that it doesn’t really abide by any of these rules; not yet, at least. Its story will catch up to the events of “Breaking Bad,” and, barring a time jump to the present, the ending of “Saul” will line up with the beginning of “Bad.” While the story is told in a brave new way — stoic, wide framing and stunningly patient development — the show isn’t reframing “Breaking Bad” so much as it’s supplementing it. Jimmy McGill isn’t a new character, but an old supporting player getting fleshed out in granular detail.
“Breaking Bad” was an action show, and “Better Call Saul” is a character drama. Like “Mad Men” and “The Wire” before it, we’re not as concerned with where “Saul’s” going as we are with what it’s telling us scene-to-scene, episode-to-episode. And there’s a lot to admire in those moments, but since we know Jimmy’s ultimate fate (and Mike’s), the element of surprise can’t match what’s found in similar character-focused series. We’re patiently waiting for Jimmy to fuck up enough that he becomes Saul, and that’s a pain I find very hard to engage with on a weekly basis. Is it a great prequel? Undoubtedly. But I’m still waiting for its story to surprise me.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “The Americans” (six votes)
Other contenders: “Better Call Saul” (two votes), “Black-ish,” “Feud,” “Girls” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.