Better Call Saul – Breaking free from its predecessor’s shadow

Saul

Spin-offs are a tricky business. Sometimes you end up with a Frasier, and other times you get Joey. And yet, spin-offs have the odds stacked against them from the start, given that they are almost always built off of a highly successful predecessor. After all, no one is clamoring for a spin-off of The Millers. These sorts of expectations have crippled more than one show in the past. But no spin-off in recent history has had to deal with the same sort of historical baggage as AMC’s newest drama, Better Call Saul.

Better Call Saul is based on the immensely popular character, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) from Breaking Bad, arguably the finest television show of the past decade. The show takes us back to a pre-Walter White era, when Saul was known as Jimmy McGill, a hustling, conniving shyster of a lawyer (so pretty much the same character he played in Breaking Bad). Jimmy is trying to make ends meet by serving as a public defender, signing reluctant clients, and staging the occasional fake car accident. He also spends a portion of the series premiere negotiating with fellow lawyer Howard Hamlin to buy out his brother Chuck’s (Michael McKean) share the law partnership of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill.

Those who enjoyed Odenkirk’s character from Breaking Bad will surely find a lot to love in this meticulously crafted new drama. Fans of Breaking Bad will no doubt welcome the return of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the “fixer” who assisted both Saul and Gus Fring in the [ahem] “chicken” business. And Mike isn’t the only Breaking Bad character making an appearance in the premiere. Another familiar face shows up in the first hour in an extended scene that is too delicious for me to spoil here. Bob Odenkirk delivers a remarkably compelling performance as Jimmy McGill, perfectly blending his trademark smarm and humor, with a surprising amount of passion and emotional depth. My greatest fear going into the pilot was that we’d grow tired of Saul’s character once he is forced to carry the weight of an entire show. After all, part of the reason that Saul was so effective in Breaking Bad was that he was parceled out in small doses. Saul provided small moments of levity to help even out the darkness inherent in a show that illustrated a man’s descent into evil. But here, Odenkirk is front and center of nearly every scene. Yet surprisingly, seeing a more thoughtful side of Saul Goodman that goes beyond the usual witty one-liner only adds to the intrigue of the character. What does Saul look like when he has to turn off the charm? The show helps to answer this question.

The two-part premiere, co-written by Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, and directed by Gilligan, brings the same mix of dark humor and human pathos that we’ve come to expect from the Breaking Bad family.  But whereas Breaking Bad explodes onto the screen from the very first scene of the pilot (remember Walter’s flying trousers and his frantic video recording to his family?), Better Call Saul opens with a much more sedate musical montage of Goodman, now the manager of your local Cinnabon, making pastries, cleaning ovens, and putting out store signage. Better Call Saul is, quite deliberately, a more slow burn affair, establishing a new world as well as new characters that we will surely grow to love, hate, and love to hate over time.

But even as the first half of the two-part premiere casually sets the stage for our characters, the second half leaps off the screen with an propulsive plot that is sure to drive a great deal of the remainder of the season. Much like its immortal predecessor, Better Call Saul is able to immediately develop a storyline that I can’t help but want to follow.

The key to truly enjoying Better Call Saul is to not try and compare it to its revered TV descendant, and instead, judge it solely on its own merits. And fortunately, with a talented cast, spot-on writing, and intriguing premise, it is easy to see how this show will eventually be able to stand out on its own. Because though it will always be the “Breaking Bad Prequel” to some, I have high hopes that Better Call Saul will eventually be viewed as simply another Vince Gilligan masterpiece.

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