TV: Better Call Saul (Season 1)

sq_better_call_saulWhen you’ve already produced one of the most critically acclaimed shows in TV history, why risk your legacy by making a spinoff after the fact? This is a question Vince Gilligan might have asked himself after Breaking Bad wrapped its epic five-season run, but the answer, as it turns out, is pretty simple: if you’ve still got great characters, and a richly imagined fictional universe, and interesting stories to tell…well, why not?

Better Call Saul is the prequel to Breaking Bad, featuring Walter White’s future lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Or should I say, Jimmy McGill? Turns out before Saul became sleazebag attorney for Walter, he was ne’er-do-well, low-rent lawyer Jimmy McGill, struggling to build a legal career after working hard to rehabilitate himself from a shifty, con-man youth. From his tiny rented office in the back of a nail salon, Jimmy begins his career scraping by as a public defender for the lowest of the low, but he has a bigger dream: building a thriving practice, preferably with his best friend Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) by his side. Unfortunately, the looming shadow of Jimmy’s past makes this a tall order, to say the least.

I have to admit I was skeptical that fast-talking, slippery Saul Goodman could headline a series, even with one of Breaking Bad‘s other standout supporting characters, Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), providing a stylishly bad-ass B story. Anyone who’s seen Breaking Bad knows where these characters are headed; how then can their journey be surprising? Turns out I needn’t have worried, because Better Call Saul’s writers—headlined by Gilligan and Peter Gould—were smart enough to carry over the big personalities of Saul and Mike, but also reinvent them enough to create a new dynamic. Six years before Walter White enters their lives, they are much different people, and this opening ten-episode season builds their backstory mysteries brilliantly, not to mention their curious, extended “meet cute” of a relationship. Odenkirk is more than up to the task of fleshing out his slick criminal attorney into a more nuanced, sympathetic protagonist. Banks, meanwhile, once again manages the trick of being stone-faced and riveting at the same time. Together they anchor a season arc that plays out like an origin story, centered around a David-and-Goliath legal drama framework that reminded me loosely of The Verdict, with Jimmy the unlikely little guy clashing with a powerful Albuquerque law firm headed by the villainous Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). It makes for an enthralling season of television, with two stellar episodes in particular— “Five-O” and “Pimento”—easily ranking, in my view, with the best of Breaking Bad’s hours. (“Five-O” is the Mike Ehrmantrout origin story, and it plays out like a perfect little short story, while “Pimento” is a shattering culmination of narrative threads that shines a new light on Jimmy’s struggle to go straight and forge a better path for himself.)

Alas, Better Call Saul could stand to diversify its cast, and add more substantive female roles. Seehorn is quite likable as Jimmy’s friend Kim, and Kerry Condon turns up in a small role that fleshes out Mike’s history. (Special mention should be made for Julie Ann Emery, who has a hilarious turn as an entitled, self-unaware white-collar criminal Jimmy pursues as a client.) But the gender imbalance is glaring. I was also underwhelmed by the season finale, and not just because it felt like a comedown after the excellent “Pimento.” Frankly, it just pointed toward a future for Jimmy that is all too expected, which may in fact be Better Call Saul’s biggest story challenge: keeping us interested in, and rooting for, Jimmy and Mike in light of what we know is coming. Season one succeeded much more than I expected in making these partial-criminals accessible and richly imagined, and the show has a more upbeat and humorous vibe than Breaking Bad. But if the show’s overall arc is about their inexorable descent into Walter White’s crosshairs, I think it will have a tougher time maintaining my emotional investment.

I’m more or less hooked, though; you can bet I’ll be back for the next season. Gilligan and company have earned my trust as inventive and suspenseful storytellers. And who knows, maybe they will subvert my long-haul expectations and propel these characters into an alternate universe, or something.

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