How do you follow one of the greatest TV dramas of all time? That’s the charge of Better Call Saul. No one is questioning Bob Odenkirk‘s ability to lead a scripted series and no one is debating the pros and cons of another lawyer-centric show. No one is worried about budget, or casting, or producers or network. It’s pretty much universally agreed that this show has a strong foundation and could be very, very good. Yet still it lingers — can this series truly shine bright in the looming shadow of its predecessor? Man, I could sit here and type and for days and days about Breaking Bad. It’s one of those rare pieces of art that speaks to multiple demographics while still managing to feel extremely personal and specific. In some ways the power of music is comparable to the show’s energy. A musician can stand on stage in front of thousands and yet somehow each and every individual feels that the song and the message are meant purely for them. TV and film operate using a different manual. It’s a medium that feels more like a group event, a collective activity. You could be at home by yourself in the middle of Antarctica and there’s a hazy sensation that someone else in the world is watching the same T.J. Hooker rerun. That’s the beauty of Breaking Bad, it sang a beautiful melody straight to your head and heart and through the magic of cable you knew that millions of others were feeling the crystal blue persuasion too. The swell of that spell bore an unexpected spin-off. You think AMC is desperate for a replacement for the RV-shaped hole in its ratings? With two seasons ordered pretty much from the jump and a months-long advertising campaign, you’d be better believe it. I still have bit of disbelief that Better Call Saul exists. Most of that is pure excitement, and a fraction of it is a feeling of heady trepidation. It’s almost like when I found out Jordan was coming out of retirement (again) and joining the Washington Wizards. Half “Hell yes!” and half “The hell?” With Vince Gilligan attached a lot of my initial qualms were put in barrels and buried. Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould runs the show this time around but if you didn’t know that you’d never suspect it. With the same locale, the backbone of the Bad writing team and a huge portion of returning crew, the show is very much a beloved product reconfigured. That’s both a knock and a compliment. There’s a certain comfort to the perfectly framed shots of the Southwestern landscape layered with brilliant musical choices but at the same time the show has got its aesthetic on loan. The major inherent problem with Better Call Saul is that the main character never really demonstrated the deep grooves that Walter White became known for. Like most Breaking Bad characters Saul entered the show with a piercing personality that eventually rounded out in subsequent episodes. Saul was very much a snarky, seemingly amoral, pallet cleanser, and while he did soften in later seasons he remained primarily to contrast to Walt’s no-nonsense approach. To the defense of the writers there was never really a reason to make Saul more digestible, but it resulted in the character never truly gaining the depth to firmly justify his own show. It’s infinitely more difficult in a prequel where they must add these layers and yet somehow make sense that this well-rounded character never really showed up in the series in which he debuted. And therein lies the main hurdle, making the main character into a sympatric, multi-dimensional figure of the caliber of Walter White while still retaining those elements of Saul Goodman that spawned his own spin-off. I’m not envious of that uphill battle. Yes, yes, I realize a thousand or so paragraphs into this review and I haven’t even really mentioned anything specific about the show. I apologize, and I’ll explain my reasoning: I’m not sure yet what Better Call Saul is about. Breaking Bad has one of the most undeniably great series premieres of all time. Structured phenomenally, it lays out Walt’s situation very quickly, covering his home life, financial troubles, cancer diagnosis, and the unsuspecting start of a meth empire within the first fifteen or so minutes. By the end of the episode we know exactly what Breaking Bad is about and where the tension lies: a high school chemistry teacher teams with his deadbeat former student to cook and sell meth to pay for his family’s expenses before he succumbs to cancer. There’s a lot there to unpack but you can’t refute that episode one clearly states its intent. Better Call Saul is much more ambiguous in its makeup and destination. The show opens in a Cinnabon in Nebraska; yes, the exact locale (we thought jokingly) mentioned by Saul near the end of Breaking Bad. In the dialogue-free scene blanketed by The Ink Spots “Address Unknown” we see how tortured, frightened, and flat-out diffused the once high-energy criminal lawyer is. The only solace he seems to have it watching his old “better call Saul!” commercials. The show then transports us back to 2002 where we see Saul, known by his real name of Jimmy M. McGill, as a public defender. Even despite his best speech about youthful mistakes he’s unable to prevent jail time for a trio of corpse defilers. Not that he cares, he just wants paid. The first two hours pound in the fact that Jimmy suffers from constant financial struggles. From his cramped office in the back of a nail salon to his apparent anxiety regarding new clients it’s implied that the show will be fueled by the same thing Walt’s was: money. Jimmy very much wants to make a name for himself but we don’t get much in the way of motive for that other than the hedonistic treadmill, an affliction we all suffer. Jimmy most apparent burden deals with his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill. Chuck is implied to be a talented lawyer and very respected by his colleagues in the firm he helped build. However, Chuck seems to suffer from a debilitating illness, a problem that is hinted to be plaguing the mind rather than the body. As his brother seems unfit to care for himself, Jimmy shoulders the responsibility of protecting the family interest — namely going head-to-head with Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) over “cashing out” for a slick seventeen million. It’s in that relationship where the story has the most drive and energy. Jimmy’s relationship with Chuck represents more connective tissue to Breaking Bad: a man fighting for money on behalf of his family… but also for himself. More links backward are two memorable characters from Bad: Mike (Jonathan Banks), who shows up in a few quick scenes as an ornery parking lot attendant, and the special guest star of the second episode, the imposing, legit nutcase Tuco Salamanca. Bringing Tuco (Raymond Cruz) for an episode is a savvy move and the second hour, “Mijo,” really takes its time with the hotheaded gangster. When Jimmy’s ploy to use scam artist brothers Cal and Lars (Daniel Spenser Levine and Steven Levine) to garner a new client goes horrifically awry, he finds himself kneeling in the desert begging for his life. He successfully talks himself out of the situation (with all fingers intact) and, even more impressively, manages to convince Mr. “Tight, tight, tight!” that simply breaking the skater brothers’ legs is a much more “just” punishment than slitting their throats. It’s a simple but amazing scene between two really good actors and, so far, it’s the centerpiece of the show. (Seriously, it’s easy to overlook but Raymond Cruz plays the rambunctious Tuco with a subtly that gives what would normally be an enormously shallow character fun layers). The lengthy mix-up with Tuco swallows up the first half of “Mijo” but it does work to introduce what appears to be a crucial side character, Nacho Varga (Michael Mando). Despite the silly moniker the young Latin thug demonstrates he can be as ruthless as he is smooth and cunning. He has enough clout and skill to convince Tuco not to kill Jimmy and later tracks down the protagonist to rope him into robbing a pair of embezzlers that Jimmy was looking to represent. We only get a tease of Nacho in the second half of “Mijo” but he looks to be an extremely interesting foil for Jimmy, something akin to his version of Jesse Pinkman, if you will. I found the first two episodes to be pretty nebulous. Even though the quality was high and the performances well done, the show is lacking a firm mission statement. The perceived narrative destination is right there in the title, but it would probably more accurate to have the show should proclaim: “Better Call On ‘Saul’!” Meaning, Jimmy McGill must transform himself into Saul Goodman, a twisted version of himself, in order to achieve the ends he desires. This also might help explain why the Saul we knew is not exactly like the Jimmy we’ve just met. Saul is a costume, a persona, but it’s the best method to win success in the world in which “Slippin’ Jimmy” resides. You might remember a man named Heisenberg who had a similar journey. This show is of high quality, without doubt, but it rests on its originator’s laurels a little too much. That works in its favor to a degree, people are longing for a Breaking Bad replacement, but I am expecting the show to forge its own path to establish a unique identity. If you never heard of Breaking Bad would this still be good? Yeah, sure. But you can also say most of the best parts involved connections to that show. That has to change for Better Call Saul to be as legendary, if not more so, than what came before. Better Call Saul 1.01 "Uno" & 1.02 "Mijo"Jamil's Rating4.0Overall ScoreReader Rating: (1 Vote)Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 3 Responses Better Call Saul 1.03 "Nacho" - Psycho Drive-In February 22, 2015 […] week Better Call Saul premiered with a duo of superb episodes and in response I wrote a lengthy review about how great Breaking Bad […] Log in to Reply Lost in Translation 126: Ma and Pa Kettle - Psycho Drive-In March 13, 2015 […] Spin-offs take the popular character* and place him or her into the starring role. Examples abound. Better Call Saul features the popular criminal lawyer from Breaking Bad. Frasier follows the psychiatrist Frasier […] Log in to Reply Lost in Translation 126 – Ma & Pa Kettle | Seventh Sanctum Codex July 26, 2015 […] take the popular character* and place him or her into the starring role. Examples abound. Better Call Saul features the popular criminal lawyer from Breaking Bad. Frasier follows the psychiatrist Frasier […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.