LOS ANGELES – "AfterMASH" crashed. "Joey" couldn't attract enough friends. "Mrs. Columbo" couldn't keep up with her spouse.
For every successful spinoff — "Frasier," "Law & Order: SVU" — there are at least a dozen that fall flat, unable to live up to the enormous expectations set by their predecessors.
With that history lesson in mind, "Better Call Saul" should be an absolute disaster. Set up as a prequel to "Breaking Bad" — the Emmy-winning masterpiece whose explosive 2013 finale is still fresh in fans' minds — it revolves around the series' Brylcreem-slick lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk).
The idea of trying to mine gold from secondary characters is so preposterous that "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm joked during a recent news conference that co-star Vincent Kartheiser was prepping for a new series, "Better Call Pete."
"You're right. It's a risk," said Vince Gilligan, the mastermind behind "Breaking Bad" and co-creator of the new show, which premieres Sunday. "I'm still anxious about how it will be received. I won't lie to you. I was scared the whole time we were making it. But ultimately, when I saw the first couple episodes become tangible in the editing room, I could suddenly say, 'Man, I don't know if the world's going to like this thing, but I really do.' I'm really proud of it."
Gilligan should be. "Saul" may not be groundbreaking, but it's a carefully crafted dramedy that explores some of the same themes as "Breaking Bad": What personal trials can turn a well-meaning man into a sinister one? How far would we go to protect our loved ones? At what point do we stop justifying our painful actions and just admit that we love the power trip?
Sunday's debut reintroduces us to Saul. It's six years before he meets future client Walter White and he's barely hanging onto a practice, working next to a water heater and defending teenagers who had sex with a cadaver.
He also has an entirely different name: Jimmy McGill.
"Breaking Bad" followers know that he eventually becomes a well-connected, unemotional fixer — but he's not there yet. Watching him go down his own slippery slope promises to be "Saul's" best draw.
"I think the writers have a great time creating a character who is navigating a complex, ever-changing prism of ethical choices," Odenkirk said. "It's fun to watch this character because he has the ability to get stuck."
"Saul" offers "Breaking Bad" fans a chance to see some other old friends. Two favorites from the original series make cameos Sunday night, as do some familiar settings, including the diner where Lydia stirred her final cup of coffee.
"We have a corkboard in the writers' room with names of all the characters we can conceive coming back," co-creator Peter Gould said. "It's always on our minds, but you want it to be organic to the show. You don't want to have the details in the background distract you from what's going on in the foreground."
Two people you won't see any time soon: Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) — although White did pop up on a Super Bowl commercial for Esurance. For one thing, Jesse would be in middle school. Then there's the hope that, despite all the nods to "Breaking Bad," this series will be its own beast.
"We don't want to mislead people into expecting something that's not going to happen, so Walt and Jess will not appear in season one," Gould said. "Having said that, everything else is on the table."