Breaking Bad was such a triumph for AMC that a spin-off is a no-brainer; although given creator Vince Gilligan's association with The X-Files, it's strange he's opted to create another show for a comic relief character, given how that notoriously backfired with The Lone Gunmen. The focus of new series BETTER CALL SAUL is the eponymous 'criminal lawyer' himself, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), who helped Walter White monetise his ill-gotten fortune. A popular supporting character, played by a charismatic actor, isn't a bad basis for a spin-off—although there are obvious perils inherent in crafting a prequel to a critical and commercial success. Can lightning ever be bottled twice?
Intriguingly, a monochrome prologue operates as a sequel to Breaking Bad's finale, as we discover Saul has a new identity as the moustachioed employee of a Nebraskan coffee shop. He's stuck doing menial tasks every day, paranoid his cover's about to be blown by random customers who look inquisitively in his direction, and home is an empty husk where he relives his real past by re-watching a VHS tape of his kitsch infomercials. It's a sad and quiet existence for a man who was once so full of energy and impudence, and this drama evidently intends to paint us a complete picture regarding Saul's former life—where he was actually known as Jimmy McGill...
Much of the premiere is a drip-feed of information about Saul's pre-fugitive days. As Jimmy McGill he's a low-level public defender living hand-to-mouth; his "office" a cramped room behind a Vietnamese beauty salon where nobody calls, forced to take cases no sane lawyer would touch—brilliantly typified in an opening trial scene, where Jimmy futilely attempted to make a jury sympathise with teenagers who decapitated a dead body and used it for sexual pleasure in a mortuary.
Unexpectedly, Better Call Saul takes its time and doesn't deliver what many people are expecting until towards the first episode's ending when Jimmy orchestrates a con using two skateboarding twins. It would have been too easy to deliver a light-hearted version of Breaking Bad with legal proceedings replacing drug-trafficking, and simply let Bob Odenkirk have free reign as the arrogant "Saul Goodman" we already know and love...
Instead, Jimmy McGill is less sure of himself (introduced rehearsing a speech in a rest room) and has an interesting backstory that has never been referred to: he's the younger brother of Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), one third of a successful law firm who's taken an "extended sabbatical" after apparently losing his sanity, and who won't agree to Jimmy's proposal to demand a lucrative company buy-out.
My initial thoughts on this drama are mixed, although the second episode was much better (thanks to an unexpected appearance from a popular Breaking Bad nemesis), but much of my optimism is due to the fact so much of the original show's creative team are involved. When you're fresh from creating one of the greatest television shows ever made (not hyperbole), you've more than earned yourself some patience and faith. They have the talent and honourable intentions to make this show work.
Odenkirk is definitely lots of fun to watch, but he's no Bryan Cranston, and Jimmy's story is a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale where we've witnessed the most exciting chapters during Breaking Bad—um, haven't we? Once the novelty of this show's existence has faded, and cameos from familiar characters are down to a premium, it'll be clearer how successful Better Call Saul might be on its own terms. A show where loser Jimmy becomes a moderately successful lawyer by learning to bend the rules and represent crooks could be enjoyable to watch, but I'm not sure Jimmy's situation with his loony brother (who has electromagnet hypersensitivity) is adding the right degree of human drama.
Oh, and for anyone who criticised Breaking Bad for its lack of female characters, the oestrogen levels in Better Call Saul's two-part premiere were even lower! Hopefully this will be quickly remedied, because it would be unfortunate to make the same mistake twice (and yes I know Anna Gunn was fantastic in Breaking Bad, but her character wasn't always so well-written).
Overall, while there's potential in a black comedy legal drama operating in the Breaking Bad sun-baked universe, clearly there's work to be done deciding what the tone of this show is going to be. I was immediately singing Breaking Bad's praises because its own premiere was excitingly kinetic and built on a compelling concept—whereas Better Call Saul is more meditative and its long-term prospects unclear. But I'm along for the ride, because the makers have more than earned some time to continue adjusting and improving.
written by Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould (1.1) & Peter Gould (1.2) • directed by Vince Gilligan (1.1) & Michelle MacLaren (1.2) • 8 & 9 February 2015 • AMC