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One of the exciting things about Better Call Saul is looking at it as a television experiment. It might blow up in everybody’s face or we might be hailing it years from now as a great second act in Vince Gilligan‘s brilliant and strange foray into New Mexico.
But nobody knows what will happen with Better Call Saul or how it will be received. We do know the stakes are high — probably higher for AMC than for either Gilligan or Peter Gould, his Breaking Bad vet and friend who co-created it. They’ll be fine regardless. AMC is hoping lightning strikes twice or, barring that, that Saul is just a different kind of magic.
And it certainly could be. But what’s fascinating early on is the birth of it, and the ceremony of the unknown that surrounds it.
First and foremost, AMC, Gilligan, Gould and star Bob Odenkirk need to hope that everybody got the memo — because early drafts of that memo were a bit confusing — that Better Call Saul really isn’t much of a comedy. It’ll be funny — there are parts of the first two episodes that certainly are — but this is the familiar ground of black humor and, for those who just want a clean and clear description, more drama than comedy.
It’s essential to know that going in.
It’s also not Breaking Bad, nor was it ever intended to be. Spin-offs are tricky. But they can certainly work — Frasier from Cheers, for example. But spin-offs come with lots of baggage and it can take multiple episodes to erase that baggage in the brain of viewers. As we should all know quite well by now, multiple episodes are not a right. Viewers are loyal if you’ve earned it — and few series have earned it like Breaking Bad — but viewers are also fickle beasts. If they come to your shop for a specific flavor of ice cream and you don’t have it — or even if you’re out of chocolate but you have Mexican chocolate — the specificity of their desires may lead them elsewhere.
Better Call Saul should be able to overcome the initial feeling out period Breaking Bad fans may have with it. But the success of Breaking Bad has also led Gilligan and Gould to perhaps feel less obliged to make a show that may have been hinted at, or bantered about like an idea in a brain-storming session. They made a show they clearly love — both said that recently while at the Television Critics Association winter press tour promoting it. But they also reiterated that the freedom to tell a different kind of story, to tinker with familiar characters and to set whatever tone which strikes them, was part of the allure of a new series. So Saul is very much its own beast, a fairly clear departure stylistically from Breaking Bad and a drama with wholly different roots as well.
The first hour moves slower than people might be expecting, but builds to and ends on a wonderful cliff-hanger that is partly but not fully solved in the second episode (luckily airing only a day after the pilot).
Better Call Saul is about Jimmy McGill, who will later become the ethically-challenged Saul Goodman. His journey to that point is the focus of the new show. As Gilligan and Gould share in the press notes: “We’re telling a different story here -—one with its own rhythm, its own look, its own tone…Jimmy’s not yet Saul Goodman: he’s his own man, and he’s messy and struggling to still find himself. One day he’ll transform into Albuquerque’s favorite criminal lawyer, but right now he’s more or less a law-abiding underdog at the bottom rung of the legal system.”
The first episode certainly lets Gilligan (who directed it) and Gould (who co-wrote it with Gilligan), tweak viewers’ shared history and remind people that their attention to detail, love of nuance and resistance to convention make for interesting television. It opens in black and white in what is essentially the present day — Saul Goodman in exile. After joyously marinating in that, the series reverts six years before Breaking Bad started (it’s a prequel, after all) and we pick up the sad-sack life of Jimmy McGill, or James McGill Esq., “A Law Corporation” as the printer-paper sign on his ramshackle office door notes.
Better Call Saul will bring back certain Breaking Bad characters as Gilligan-Gould so desire (one fan-favorite pops up in the first two eps), but the main character from the original series to share space with Jimmy is Mike (Jonathan Banks). When we meet Mike, he’s not the menacing fixer we know from Breaking Bad, he’s a new resident trying to find some peace, working in the parking lot of the courthouse where Jimmy toils. New, important characters include Jimmy’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean, This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, etc.) a successful (good and clean) lawyer now suffering from an unusual illness that confines him to his house (where he can’t practice law, or make money); Kim (Rhea Seehorn, Whitney) a lawyer with a relationship history with Jimmy; Hamlin (Patrick Fabian, Grey’s Anatomy) a successful partner at Chuck’s old firm; and Nacho (Michael Mando, Orphan Black) a rising criminal in Albuquerque.
Getting to know these new players (and even Mike, since we see a new side of him here), will take some time. Taking time, it’s clear, is what Gilligan and Gould intend to do. “We’re slow burning everything,” Gilligan said when he met critics. Now that’s a calculated risk, since the first two episodes move at a slow creep for long stretches and viewers will have be patient and trust the storytelling (and thus the pace).
What can’t be known early on is whether Jimmy McGill, this confused, searching bottom-feeder, will be as immediately interesting to Breaking Bad fans as Saul Goodman, who’s desperate and often hilarious advice fueled much of the chaos (and the humor) of the original series.
Odenkirk, for his part, is superb here. He proves yet again what a fine, grounded actor he is. Sure, he gets to unleash himself in fits and starts, but is primarily seen as introspective, still mostly innocent, as the series starts. Showing compassion (particularly as he interacts with brother Chuck) and lost-lamb desperation are the qualities that illustrate Odenkirk’s range. He’s in pretty much every scene, so coming to love his character (as well as understand him in these early days) is essential.
That brings us back to the audience and this intriguing experiment. What’s arguably unheard of with Better Call Saul is that it’s a spin-off from one of the greatest dramas in TV history, a feat not attempted by The Sopranos, The Wire, or (at this point) Mad Men. That’s a risk that’s fascinating and bold. Whether it’s one that’s worth watching will settled in the weeks and months (and maybe years) ahead.
But there’s no question that Gilligan and Gould have earned the right to attempt this. So going along for the ride, no matter how it unspools, seems absolutely essential.
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The Fien Print
William Jackson Harper