Better Call Saul Mondays, 10 p.m., AMC. Two-part premiere February 8 & 9, 10 p.m.
The decision to do a Breaking Bad prequel featuring Saul Goodman, Walter White’s attorney, posed an obvious challenge. Considering everyone already knows the fate of its protagonist, at best a fringe character on one of the greatest shows of all time, could this really work?
Through three episodes provided for review, absolutely. Better Call Saul isn’t to ascend to Breaking Bad’s place in pop-culture history, but as a guilty pleasure for those who miss Heisenberg and the gang, it succeeds on just about every level. Not only does it return to the desert surroundings we know and love, but it also revels in the same moral depravity and dark humor we’ve come to expect from show creator Vince Gilligan.
It also gets another standout performance from Bob Odenkirk as the title character, whom we learn started life as James “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill, a man of questionable character almost from day one. Jimmy struggles financially with public defender cases while taking care of his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a brilliant lawyer who suffered a nervous breakdown and now fears electromagnetic fields.
The parallels between Saul and Bad are plentiful: With his brother being taken advantage of by the law firm he helped to build (Gray Matter?), Jimmy scrambles for jackpot clients in his smoke-belching Suzuki Esteem (Plymouth Aztek?). It’s not long before he’s making decisions that often have ugly consequences, mostly to those around him, and eventually he’s going to assume an alternate identity (Walter White and Heisenberg?).
Where the show breaks with Bad is that Walter White was able to live two lives; Jimmy isn’t fooling anyone. Everyone knows he’s a slimy guy, and he’s either playing or being played. As a result, Better Call Saul is nowhere near as complex or compelling as Breaking Bad. It’s often downright breezy by comparison, throwing in numerous movie references and farcical situations (Jimmy’s repeated attempts to get his car past a parking lot attendant feel like something out of Curb Your Enthusiasm).
But when famous Breaking Bad characters enter the picture (and there will be several), it’s a sobering reminder that, no matter how much we might enjoy this show, it’s going to end badly. And soon.