2020 Hindsight: Why Prequels Became a Hot TV Ticket
You wouldn’t think prequels would be an automatic winner in the treacherous television programming game, for the simple reason that you wouldn’t think a lot of viewers demand them. Or even think about them.
Go back to the beginning of television as we know it. How many fans of Leave It To Beaver wondered whether June Cleaver had dreams of a bigger life before she married Ward? How many fans of All In The Family wanted to see what closed the young Archie Bunker’s mind? Do NCIS fans sit around wishing for more backstory on Jethro Gibbs than the show already provides with its odd flashbacks?
No, not really.
And yet, while we may not have exactly entered the golden age of TV prequels, we’re getting a flurry of them these days — and they’re pretty good.
Some would say the best show on television now is a prequel: Better Call Saul, the AMC series that tracks the origin story of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a peripheral character from the adored Breaking Bad.
CBS’s Young Sheldon follows the often endearing and even more often humorous early life of Sheldon Cooper (Iain Armitage), who grew up to become the wonderfully irritating geek played by Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory.
PBS’s Masterpiece Theater has just finished the annoyingly short seventh season of Endeavour, in which we meet Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) years before actor John Thaw made him the quirky and neurotic star of the Inspector Morse series.
Speaking of quirks and neuroses in the police world, which is a conversation that could take months, Netflix just unveiled Young Wallander, with Adam Palsson as the young brooding Swedish detective who would grow up to become an older brooding Swedish detective memorably played several years ago by Kenneth Branagh.
Meanwhile, Starz announced last week that one of its three spinoffs from its great and recently concluded Power series will focus on the earlier life of the late Kanan, a ruthless criminal played on Power by Fifty Cent.
No, TV didn’t dream up the idea of prequels. The movies have been using them for decades to extend the life of popular films. Films from Godfather II to SpongeBob have told prequel tales, and they don’t even constitute the mother lode.
Fantasy and superhero movies, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and way too many Marvel characters to keep track of, are constantly exploring the worlds in which these folks grew up.
Television naturally picked up that lucrative concept with series like Gotham (Batman), Smallville (Superman) and Star Trek: Enterprise.
And let’s not forget The Carrie Diaries, peeking in on the youth of the Carrie Bradshaw character turned into a cult icon by Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex and the City.
Nor is it difficult to understand why the prequel concept would lure TV producers. Hint: It’s the same reason we see Dynasty, Will and Grace, Full House and seemingly dozens of other shows plucked from our memory books and rebooted.
There’s so much television in this platinum age that the hardest challenge for any new show is simply to make potential viewers aware it exists. Being able to offer a familiar name or character automatically draws attention.
So Better Call Saul was a good idea even if there was no petition drive beseeching creator Vince Gilligan to explain Walter White’s amoral lawyer.
Why7 Because Gilligan, who after Breaking Bad had a misfire with the short-lived police drama Battle Creek, saw a way to make Goodman more than comic relief.
As Better Call Saul approaches its final season, Gilligan now faces the final challenge of all prequels: It has to synch up with the opening of the parent series.
Specifically with Better Call Saul, that means Gilligan has to do something with Saul’s colleague/paramour Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), who has become as critical a character in the prequel as Saul himself.
To set up Breaking Bad, in which she did not appear, she has to be gone.
Getting rid of characters will be a similar imperative for Endeavour as it winds down. Same for Young Wallander, which includes a mix of characters who do and do not figure into the later stories.
In the case of Young Wallander, it would also challenge any actor to take on a role memorably imprinted by Branagh. Palsson clears that hurdle, which may confirm that our recent batch of prequels has succeeded not because they have discovered a golden secret, but simply because they do television well.