Let’s get this out of the way right off the top. The less Better Call Saul devolves into fan service for Breaking Bad nerds who can’t let go of the past and who get a big TV boner out of stupid Easter eggs like the street Gail Boetticher lived on or a pointless bad guy cameo like [redacted spoiler], the better the show will be. Vince Gilligan and the rest of the copious talent behind the show have gone to great lengths to spin Saul Goodman’s DNA into an entirely new yet familiar creature in the Breaking Bad universe. So far, it’s better than tired stunts or gimmicks designed to placate the internet horde who refuse to accept anything new as long as they can remain in the sweet comforting embrace of a show they didn’t want to let go of in the first place. Fuck the internet horde. They’re ruining movies and television.
And now back to the show.
In part one of the series’ two night premiere, we catch up with Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) in the future, or maybe it’s the present. Either way, it’s in black and white, The Ink Spots’ “Address Unknown” is on the soundtrack and Saul’s life in Albuquerque is over. He’s living somewhere cold with a new identity that involves a mustache and a dull career at a local Cinnabon. After a long, tiresome day at work, “Saul” settles in with a Rusty Nail and a video of his TV ads from brighter days… which brings us back to the past, or the present as Better Call Saul knows it where Saul isn’t yet Saul. He’s still relatively honest attorney Jimmy McGill (though I’m going to keep referring to him a Saul) doing pro bono work for $700 a case. He drives a beat up Subaru Esteem that makes Walter White’s Pontiac Aztek look like a BMW X6 and he’s trying to rope in a lucrative new client, the Kettlemans (Jeremy Shamos, Julie Ann Emery), an accountant and his wife who are accused of embezzling money. It’s not going well. To make matters worse, it turns out Saul’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is a partner at a prestigious law firm, but he’s gone a little crazy. It seems he’s developed a phobia of electromagnetic radiation and refuses to leave the house which he’s stripped of electricity. With Chuck’s law firm refusing to buy him out, Saul is left to support the two of them on his meagre income.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that, so Saul throws in with a couple of skate punks who work a scam where one of them gets hit by a car and they shake down the hapless victim for cash. Saul convinces them that with his legal expertise, they can all get rich. His first target? The Kettlemans and their embezzled millions.
There’s your thumbnail in a nutshell sketch of the first episode, “Uno.” I forgot to mention we also briefly meet Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) who for now is a hardassed parking attendant at the court Saul frequents, but I’m sure we’ll be talking more about him in the future since he’s supposed to be prominently featured in the show going forward.
Visually, Better Call Saul looks like a copy of Breaking Bad, but tonally it’s definitely charting its own course. It takes the humor that was always an undercurrent of the former show and emphasizes it. Not that Saul is a laugh-a-minute sitcom, but it has a quirky bent that is honestly ten times more “Coenesque” than Fargo TV was. It’s like Breaking Bad’s cheeky younger brother.
Saul is still Saul, but Odenkirk has dialed him back a notch. In court he has that familiar cheap swagger (we see him in action defending a group of clean cut young men who it turns out broke into a funeral home and videotaped themselves in the act of having sex with the corpse), but out of the spotlight, Saul is an almost broken man. He’s less edgy; more desperate.
On top of the emphasis on humor, there’s a whole other vibe that’s harder to put a finger on. Maybe it’s Dave Porter’s music which seems more a part of the laid back southwest milieu than his work on Breaking Bad. That makes sense because Walter White was an outsider, but Saul appears to be a born and bred fixture of the community.
It’s impossible to judge a series based on one episode, but Better Call Saul shows a great deal of promise. The big danger going forward is going to be the need to placate hard core Breaking Bad fans with the aforementioned Easter eggs and cameos. The pressure on Gilligan and crew is going to be enormous, both from fans and probably from AMC as well, to replicate Saul’s hit progenitor and to push all the Breaking Bad buttons that can be pushed (already the TV journos have been peppering the creators and cast with questions about if/when Jesse or Walter will appear on the show), but I hope they get that nonsense out of their system quickly. It’s a senseless and annoying distraction from what has the potential to be a really excellent and original show. Better Call Saul doesn’t have to be better than Breaking Bad as some early reviews are already calling it, and it most definitely doesn’t have to be the same. It needs to be its own thing. We and the show itself will be better off as soon as we admit that and move on together with the next great thing.