Better Call Saul and the Challenge of the Prequel

Image via AMC
Image via AMC

There were some doubts by people going into Better Call Saul, AMC’s new Breaking Bad spinoff starring Bob Odenkirk. Would Odenkirk’s sleazy lawyer be enough to carry a series? Could Odenkirk, an excellent comedy writer and actor, be a strong enough lead for his own semi-serious show? Hell yes, he can.

It’s clear that Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan spent enough time figuring out just what kind of show that they wanted Better Call Saul to be. It could have easily slipped into a case of the week comedy. “Which wacky client will Saul take on next!? Yowza!” But Saul is much more Breaking Bad than Night Court. You can tell that from the gorgeous show opening; a black and white look at the former lawyer’s life now that he’s off in hiding. Life as the manager of a Cinnabon just doesn’t compare to the thrilling adventures of a criminal lawyer. Even with his new position, Saul/Jimmy is watching his back. There’s a great Sopranos reference as Saul watches a man in a members only jacket out of the corner of his eye. Has his day come, like Tony Soprano’s (most likely, you obsessive loons) before him? Nope, just another day in the life.

The main crux (at least at this point) of Better Call Saul takes place in 2002: a time when flip phones were considered fashionable and common and used as more than just burners for enterprising drug dealers. Saul was just a struggling lawyer by the name of Jimmy McGill. The Patriots were only recently considered a successful football team. Pants were worn loose and commonly referred to as bloomers. We’re seeing the prequel to Saul Goodman, which is a risky proposition.

Thankfully, Better Call Saul seems to have the prequel elements locked down. There are references and nods at the events of Breaking Bad, but they’re restrained. Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut is just an exasperated running gag at the moment. The appearance of a major Breaking Bad antagonist is a welcome sight who doesn’t overstay his welcome. It’s not like a certain comic book based show on Fox that I’ve trashed one too many times, winking about things to come left and right. Better Call Saul is its own show, dealing with the seedy rise of the top injury lawyer in New Mexico.

The whole thing is a little more serious than I expected, but Odenkirk is up to the challenge. There was always a little something extra to his performance that kept him around for the long haul. Saul Goodman could have easily been a one season and done character. Odenkirk gives him a soul behind the underhanded dealings and shameless commercials. He really shines here, especially in the courtroom. Slippin’ Jimmy’s frustrations are visible. His life is sad and funny and unusual. It’s all shaping up to be another grand ride from the Breaking Bad crew.

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