Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Breaking Bad spin-off debuted in February as the highest-rated scripted series premiere in basic cable history. Its 10-episode first season actually outdrew, on a per-episode basis, all but the last season of its predecessor.
Set in 2002 – six years before the events of Breaking Bad – Bob Odenkirk portrays Jimmy McGill, a small-time Albuquerque lawyer, and heads a cast rounded out by Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, and Jonathan Banks, who reprises his role as Mike Ehrmantraut, somehow managing to be even more menacing than in the original series.
On the surface, Better Call Saul is actually a fairly straightforward legal drama with an infusion of comedy, dealing, especially in the early episodes, with McGill’s work inside and outside of a courtroom. Much of the characterization however, particularly between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (McKean), are shown through flashback.
Jimmy has transformed himself from “Slippin’ Jimmy”, a small-time conman and scam artist (the origin of the name “Saul Goodman”), into a practicing lawyer, earning a degree (from the University of American Samoa) and passing the bar (on the third try). Attempting to follow in Chuck’s footsteps, but unable to graduate from the mail room of the firm Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill, Jimmy strikes out on his own, setting up shop in the back of a nail salon. Always looking for a career-making case, Jimmy mostly scrapes by acting as a public defender.
Jimmy also acts as a lifeline for Chuck, who has been forced to leave his partner position at HHM after developing a sudden and debilitating case of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, rendering him incapable of even leaving his house. Eventually, Jimmy and Chuck develop a symbiotic working relationship, despite each other’s shortcomings.
The only other constant non-lawyer character in the series, thus far, has been Ehrmantraut, who operates a parking lot toll booth at the courthouse. This provides early and frequent sources of comedy, and was featured in many of the sneak peeks and early trailers for the show before it debuted. The show only hints at what Mike will eventually become a few years down the road, but there is enough bubbling below the surface to suggest that we may see some further development in the near future.
As difficult as it is to live up to a show described as one of the best television shows in history, Better Call Saul is a worthy successor. It offers more than enough to stand on its own merits, but shows enough to the reminiscent Breaking Bad fan to satisfy any lingering Walter White hunger – the muted colours and banal aspects of everyday life, the anti-heroes and the good intentions behind their misdeeds, and the instantaneous tonal shifts when the on-screen chemistry in a situation is just right. There is even a nod in the finale to the theory that Walter White absorbed a personality trait or quirk of every person he killed.
If you weren’t sure whether you wanted to risk sullying your memory of Breaking Bad by trying to get in to Better Call Saul, rest assured that it does nothing but honour that memory, and create a history all its own.
S’all good, man.