As Better Call Saul makes is debut, the series set in the wake of the events of Breaking Bad creates its own tone while honoring the elements that made its predecessor a smash hit. Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, and writer Peter Gould set up this dark little comedy about Saul Goodman six years before he was fixing Walter White’s messes. The results are both charming and utterly different than their previous work.
When we first see Saul, he is living in witness protection, fulfilling his prophecy made at the end of Breaking Bad.
“If I’m lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.”
This is exactly where we find Saul aka Jimmy McGill.
After Walt dies lying in a pool of his own blood and Pinkman makes his fast and furious exit, the former fixer-turned-Cinnabon manager is a sad and nervous wreck, constantly looking over his shoulder, living under witness protection.
Ultimately, his disappearing act made him a complete nobody who drinks and watches old videotapes of his own commercials, a far cry from the exuberant and outgoing individual who faked his Jewish heritage for the image benefits.
After the setup, we are transported back to a time long before he was laundering drug money when Saul was just potato-eating James McGill, the low-life, bottom-rung personal injury lawyer.
When we first see the would-be Saul in lawyer mode, Bob Odenkirk’s performance crackles with vibrancy as McGill defends three youths who, for unknown reasons, decapitate a corpse at a funeral home and proceed to have sexual relations with its severed head.
“Oh, to be 19 again.” he states in their defense of the three young gentlemen. “Your juice are flowing, your corpuscles are corpuscling” — and it pretty much goes downhill from there.
For this, he earns a measly $700. This is the life of James McGill.
Better Call Saul’s premiere episode makes its way through a series of mishaps for the would-be cover-up artist, including a hilariously misguided attempt by twins to con him and his brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) out of $500. The Brother McGill is on sick leave from his law firm, presumably dying from some rare disease that somehow affects his electromagnetic frequency. “Saul” unsuccessfully attempts to get his brother a $17 million severance package.
McGill is rewarded for his efforts by his brothers insistence that “Saul” change his last name for business purposes. When Jimmy “Saul” McGill complains about finances, Chuck McGill says of Saul’s public assistance work, “Money is besides the point,” Jimmy is flabbergasted.
“”Money is NOT beside the point. Money IS the point,”
Once again, we get equal parts tragedy, dark comedy, and drama. While the show is methodically paced, it picks up toward the end as Saul runs into gun wielding criminal Tuko, the psychotic meth dealer from Breaking Bad, as a result of a con gone awry.
Better Call Saul is no second-rate imitation of Breaking Bad. Instead, “Saul” manages to keep its own perspective on the Breaking Bad universe by taking things in a completely different albeit entertaining direction. While the subject matter and storyline of Better Call Saul are entertainingly different, it keeps certain thematic elements, atmosphere, and a visual style that reminds viewers that it is set in the same universe.
It also retains the character of Mike Ehrmantraut, played by Jonathan Banks, before he was the professional muscle behind meth kingpin Gus Fring. Mike is hassling McGill from a toll booth in the courthouse where the would be Saul works — a far cry from the hit man / fixer he would later become.
Ultimately, the success of Better Call Saul rests on the shoulders of Bob Odenkirk, of HBO’s Mr. Show fame, who is 100 percent in his element in the character of Jimmy “Saul” McGill.
A lawyer who works from a dimly lit closet in the back of a beauty salon with a stack of bills on his desk might be a depressing figure, but Odenkirk gives “Saul” enough life and charm to make the character relatable and thoroughly enjoyable.
McGill may have a bad comb-over and a cheap suit, but he makes up for it with passion, guts, and Odenkirk’s engaging performance. It should be quite entertaining to see how these characters become who they are in Breaking Bad.
The second half of the premiere of Better Call Saul airs Monday night.