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Have Prequels Lived Up to Their Hype?
September 8, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 4 comments

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 would be demanding them or even envisioning them.

Go back to the beginning of television as we know it. How many fans of Leave It To Beaver wondered whether June had dreams of a bigger life before she met 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 sure getting a flurry of them – 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), an arguably fringe 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 tech genius played by Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory.

When Big Bang bowed out, Young Sheldon soldiered on.

PBS' Masterpiece Theater has just finished the annoyingly short seventh season of Endeavour, which stars Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse, whom fans of British detective shows knew years ago from the acclaimed Inspector Morse series.

Evans plays the younger Morse, giving us an idea where some of Morse's quirks and neuroses originated.

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 brooding young 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 story of the young Kanan, who grew up to be a ruthless drug dealer played in Power by Fifty Cent.

Now 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 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to Godfather II and SpongeBob have told prequel stories, and that isn't even Ground Zero.

Successful fantasy and superhero movies, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and way too many Marvel characters to enumerate, are constantly going back to revisit the worlds in which these folks grew up.

Television merely picked up that lucrative notion with series like Gotham (Batman), Smallville (Superman), and Star Trek: Enterprise.

Nor should we forget The Carrie Diaries, peeking in on the youth of the character made into a cult icon by Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex and the City.

It's not difficult to understand why the prequel concept would lure TV producers. Hint: It's the same reason we've seen reboots of DynastyWill and GraceMurphy BrownFull House, and seemingly dozens of other shows plucked from our memory books.

One of the downsides of a platinum age of television is that there's so much television that the hardest challenge for any new show is simply to make potential viewers aware you exist.

Being able to hold up a familiar character from a successful past show helps cut through the clutter.

But the mere fact people recognize you doesn't mean they're going to watch you, particularly because in the case of prequels, they most often didn't even know they were looking for you.

There was no petition drive beseeching Vince Gilligan to reveal what backstory could have shaped Saul Goodman.

But Gilligan, who after Breaking Bad had a misfire with the short-lived police drama Battle Creek, saw a way to make Goodman more than the comic relief he often provided in Breaking Bad.

As Better Call Saul gears up for its final season, Gilligan now faces one of the challenges of prequels: It has to merge seamlessly into the opening of the parent series.

Specifically with Better Call Saul, that means figuring out what happens to Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, top), who has played as important a role in the prequel as Saul himself.

She did not appear in Breaking Bad. So Gilligan has to show us why not.

Getting rid of characters has been a similar though lower-profile challenge for Endeavour. But it has been handled well, as has the potential problem of the shadow cast by the original star.

In the case of Young Wallander, it would challenge any actor to take on a role made famous by Branagh.

Palsson has passed the test, which may reaffirm the theory that our recent batch of prequels has succeeded (for the most part) not because it has found a golden formula or because this is the platinum age of television, but because they simply do television well.

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I forgot-- the Prequel to Helen Mirren's Suspect was perfectly awful!
Mirren is a hard act to follow and they certainly missed the mark.
Sep 8, 2020   |  Reply
Dave Brown
Funny, I liked it. Didn't hurt that the woman who played a young Tennison is very beautiful, but I think I could see beyond just that. :-)
Sep 9, 2020
I question Young Wallender. I had a Time/Space challenge, with cell phones and hip hop music.. If it were to be truly Y.W. -- it would be interesting to see the earlier Swedish Police Department. I enjoyed it, but failed to see where it connected to Wallender, Sr. Brooding Detectives abound, they don't need to be Prequels..
Sep 8, 2020   |  Reply
Carole Turk
The Perry Mason prequel was also really spectacular!
Sep 8, 2020   |  Reply
Dave Brown
FYI, it's just "Masterpiece" - it hasn't been called "Masterpiece" Theater (or Theatre, actually) since 2008.
Sep 8, 2020   |  Reply
Dave Brown
Whoops, quote mark in wrong place, sorry.
Sep 8, 2020
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