This past Monday marks the end of the ten episode premiere season of AMC’s latest original offering Better Call Saul. The show is a spin-off of Vince Gilligan’s critically acclaimed (and, at times, exceptionally dark) Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul chronicles the trials and tribulations of struggling attorney Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) as he claws his way from being a generally honest just-getting-by public attorney to the charmingly sleazy Saul Goodman (the successful strip mall criminal lawyer viewers have come to know and love from Breaking Bad).
In the season premiere, viewers see Odenkirk portraying a version of Goodman they are not quite accustomed to: honest, hard-working, and with a good deal more hair. Jimmy McGill is not a complete 180 from Saul Goodman, as Odenkirk still brings some of the fast thinking and quick quipping he possessed in Breaking Bad, albeit packaged in a much more empathetic and humble character.
Jimmy McGill is a former small time con man who, through the help of his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), has made great strides in turning his life around and walking a straighter path. At the start of the series he is barely getting by, working (and presumably living) in the back office of a Korean nail salon. He is not respected (he cannot even get free cucumber water at the salon as it is deemed for “customers only”) he drives a small, beat-up car and is constantly given grief from the parking attendant at the courthouse (Mike Erhamtraut, who Badheads will instantly recall as the actor who played Mike from Breaking Bad). To add to the likability of Jimmy, he puts in a great deal of time and effort caring for his brother who has developed a rare condition of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Chuck McGill, who was once a very powerful attorney working as a partner at Hamlin Hamlin & McGill, is reduced to living in a house with no power, closing himself off from the outside world and hiding under a space blanket to shield himself from harmful electromagnetic waves.
During his time as a con-artist in Chicago, Jimmy was known as “Slipping Jimmy” and scammed locals through a variety of grifts to get beer money and maintain a less than noble life style. Vince Gilligan is obviously no stranger to including the criminal element in his writing, and Better Call Saul is no exception. In the series premiere, viewers are re-introduced to the meth-crazed Tuco Salamanca after Jimmy’s scheme to attract a new client goes horribly wrong and ends with him in a tight spot with some Mexican gangsters.
As much as Better Call Saul is an origin story for Saul Goodman, it also serves to give a great deal of back story to the character of Mike Erhamtrout, a former Philadelphia cop who viewers quickly learns has his own criminal skill set. In Breaking Bad, Goodman and Erhamtrout are working together and Better Call Saul lays out the groundwork for how this unlikely partnership is formed.
The first season is (as viewers have come to expect from Gilligan and his team) unpredictable, engrossing and, on all levels, original. The majority of the show hinges on Odenkirk’s chops. For an actor who got his start in sketch comedy, he has proven to be capable of a great deal of range, as well as believably carrying a mostly dramatic series. The writing is fresh and lively, and very different from the typical law show viewers tend to see on cable television. Season one of Better Call Saul opens up a lot of doors and scatters a bunch of clues for fans to wonder about. Also, as with any prequel, it is a lot like building a bridge, in that there are two sides that need to be connected (Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman). So far, the show is not nearly as dark or lurid as its predecessor, but by the end of the first season it is clear to see that the frustrated Jimmy McGill plans to break bad in his own right.
Review By Michael Caulfield