Emmys: ‘Better Call Saul’ Hopes to Join Elite Ranks of Freshman Drama Winners

Jimmy McGill is accustomed to being the underdog. But if “Better Call Saul” goes all the way to win the Emmy for best drama, the AMC series will join an elite club of shows that have claimed TV’s top prize for their freshman seasons.

Since 1981, when “Hill Street Blues” triumphed in its first year of eligibility, only six other series have pulled it off: “L.A. Law” (1987), “Picket Fences” (1992), “The West Wing” (2000), “Lost” (2005), “Mad Men” (2008) and “Homeland” (2012).

Better Call Saul” is the only first-year show in the running for drama series honors this year. Securing a series nomination in year one is a feather in the cap of any show. But in the case of “Saul,” the recognition is especially sweet. It’s validation that AMC’s prequel series to Emmy darling “Breaking Bad” has overcome the long shadow of its predecessor as a creative achievement that stands on its own.

“It’s so incredibly flattering, and there are so many other great shows that would have deserved the same slot,” says Peter Gould, “Saul” co-creator. “It means the show has found its sea legs. We’re not just a spinoff. We’re not just in the shadow of another show. It’s also humbling because there are a lot of wonderful shows that didn’t get nominated. And there are a lot of wonderful shows that never get nominated.”

Breaking into the Emmy race in the first season amounts to invaluable promotion, conferring a level of prestige on a fledging enterprise and bragging rights for industryites. But to leap-frog over established shows and make a trip to the stage on Emmy night is a surreal experience, industry vets say. Showrunner Carlton Cuse remembers being instantly struck by the juxtaposition of “Lost’s” tenuous beginnings when the groundbreaking ABC drama prevailed at the 2005 Emmy fete over “24,” “Deadwood,” “Six Feet Under” and “The West Wing.”

“There were so few people who believed in our premise and believed that we would be able to survive as a long-term series,” Cuse recalls. “At the beginning of the season it was hard requisitioning pencils, and by the end we had won the Emmy. We threw out a lot of the conventional wisdom about television to do that show, and to have people embracing it and giving us an award for that was thrilling.”

The pressure to deliver is intense for any show that beats the odds and makes it to season two. Most shows, particularly broadcast TV series, are hip-deep in production by the time the Emmy ceremony arrives in September. The “Lost” team spent a fun night on the town celebrating after the win, but went back into the tricky business of plotting the series’ dense mythology a day later, after getting some sleep.

“We ended up at Mel’s Diner on Sunset at 5 a.m.,” Cuse recalls. “We walked in with our statuettes and people applauded as we sat down.”

For “Saul,” the close association with “Breaking Bad” comes with pluses and minuses as far as Emmy competition is concerned. The show’s profile was much higher than that of most new series; even “Breaking Bad” didn’t land a drama series nom in its first year. The accolades for star Bob Odenkirk and the writing team led by Gould and co-creator Vince Gilligan were almost universally effusive. There was palpable relief among TV critics who fretted that a mediocre spinoff would tarnish the legacy of its beloved predecessor.

But Emmy voters may nonetheless feel that the “Breaking Bad” team has earned plenty of hardware, including back-to-back wins in 2013 and 2014 for drama series. This year’s drama heat has considerable diversity, from “Orange Is the New Black” to “Game of Thrones” to “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Downton Abbey” and the end of “Mad Men.”

“Saul” was undeniably high among the most critically embraced freshman series of the 2014-15 season. The praise was spread across the board for its writing and directing and the Herculean feats of dialogue and character nuance delivered by Odenkirk in the skin of Jimmy McGill (later to be known as Saul Goodman). Jonathan Banks grabbed a supporting nom for his able assistance in reprising his “Breaking Bad” role as the malevolent Mike Ehrmantraut.

If Jimmy were running “Saul’s” Emmy campaign, he’d be relentless in tubthumping with billboards, bumper stickers and “Vote for ‘Saul’ ”-branded Jell-O cups. Gould and Gilligan & Co. seem to be taking their cues from the play-it-cool school of Ehrmantraut.

As Ehrmantraut counsels Jimmy in the “Saul” season finale regarding his decision to forgo the chance to steal $1.6 million in cash: “I was hired to do a job. I did it. That’s as far as it goes.” Unless, of course, TV Academy voters decide to take it one step further for the “Saul” gang.

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