I think it’s natural to be a little skeptical about “spin-off” TV shows. Sure, in many ways they work just like movie sequels (some are good, and some stink), but there’s also something potentially dangerous about taking a character who worked brilliantly in small doses and turning them into the main attraction. The fact that we’re talking about a brilliantly-written Breaking Bad character who was portrayed by a great comedic actor just raises the stakes a little higher. When a show is as great as Breaking Bad, one would hate to see a semi-sequel spin-off series that doesn’t carry its own weight.
Fortunately, based on only the premiere episode of Better Call Saul, it doesn’t look like the writer/producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould will have any trouble avoiding the spin-off pitfalls that plague so many other television franchises. Breaking Bad fans will, of course, see a few familiar faces here and there as Better Call Saul rolls on, but it sure doesn’t seem like this particular spin-off will be lazing around on its predecessor’s reputation.
As far as the worries concerning the expansion of a minor character into the focus of his own series, that’s not even an issue here. Bob Odenkirk’s performance as the highly intelligent yet energetically sleazy attorney Saul Goodman is a true highlight of Breaking Bad, so the only real hurdle here was in giving the guy something interesting to do.
The inaugural episode of Batter Call Saul is called, fittingly enough, “Uno,” and it starts us off with a post-Breaking Bad setting: poor ol’ Saul is now working in a corporate bakery inside of a shopping mall. What? He’s not a lawyer anymore? This is kinda sad! Also it feels precisely like a three-minute Cinnabon commercial! I’m confused! But then Saul heads home, digs an old VHS tape out of his closet, and revisits his goofy old lawyer commercials. Aha! Better Call Saul is a flashback series. Sort of a spin-off, a sequel, and a prequel at the same time.
OK, so perhaps my “spin-off cynicism” took a few minutes to evaporate, because once we get past the beautifully-shot framing story and start focusing on Saul’s early years in the lawyer business, that’s when Better Call Saul goes from a Breaking Bad fan’s curiosity piece its very own “stand-alone” entity — which is all we should ever expect from a spin-off, sequel, or prequel in the first place. Not only is this a remarkably well-directed and visually creative piece of storytelling, but the structure is also refreshingly unpredictable, which is one of the things that made Breaking Bad so popular in the first place. It had a salacious premise and a brilliant cast, but the beauty of Breaking Bad was that you simply never knew where we’d be at the end of each episode.
Instead of a clunky salvo of hastily-presented exposition about a struggling New Mexico attorney named Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman, but more on that later), the episode simply drops a few hints here and there, on the assumption that viewers are attentive / intelligent enough to piece some stuff together on their own. We learn that long before “Saul Goodman” ever met up with Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, he was just a run-of-the-mill ambulance chaser who had serious trouble keeping his bills paid. We also learn that he has an older brother named Chuck (the always great Michael McKean), and that Chuck suffers from some sort of dementia that prevents him from returning to his own career as a much fancier sort of attorney.
Already the writers have given us some good stuff to chew on; it’s been well-established that Jimmy / Saul has a capacity (nay, a gift) for being selfish and opportunistic, but the introduction of a big brother character, one who casts a large shadow and may eventually be worth a whole lot of money, allows us to see our anti-hero in a new light. Is Saul (I mean Jimmy) truly concerned for his brother’s well-being — or does he look at Chuck like a lottery ticket that could hit the jackpot any minute? Probably a combination of both, but at this point all I can say is that the sequence between Odenkirk and McKean is wonderfully written, and I look forward to more scenes just like this one.
If you’re hoping for the junior version of the Saul Goodman we and know and love (to hate), “Uno” does not disappoint. Just check out how long (and how well) the filmmakers delay the payoff regarding Jimmy’s opening case. To explain it would spoil the joke; suffice to say that the sequence works not only as quality development for our main character, but it also shows how Saul (sorry, Jimmy) is not exactly swimming in high-class clientele.
The bulk of the episode deals with A) setting up Saul’s amusingly meager existence; B) introducing Chuck through a cleverly vague and colorfully compelling series of arguments between bickering lawyers; and C) Saul’s misguided scheme involving two skateboarders, a car accident, and the wife of an obvious embezzler. So yeah, for a “spin-off” series, Better Call Saul doesn’t seem all that interested in milking the Breaking Bad connection. Hardcore Walter White fans will certainly enjoy the few surprises sprinkled about here and there, but if “Uno” is any indication of what’s to come in the next nine episodes, Better Call Saul seems intent on making its own way through the unpredictable underbelly of Albuquerque.
And I’ll be very happy to follow along.
(Episode one of Better Call Saul is available for your viewing pleasure right here.) (It does have profanity.) (And adult themes.)