February 9, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Better Call Saul”


BETTER CALL SAUL:  Monday 10PM on AMC – Potential DVR Alert

Spin-offs used to be an regular part of the TV landscape, even for the most celebrated shows–Norman Lear created a virtual tree of comedies originating with All In the Family, from Maude and The Jeffersons to Archie Bunker’s Place and Good Times, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show was nearly as fertile, even spawning the drama Lou Grant–and networks can still always add on new wings to procedural franchises like CSI and NCIS.  But as the nature of television has changed, and we’ve all started to take its serious shows more seriously, the bar has been raised quite a bit.  Vince Gilligan, though, has never been one to resist a challenge.  He brought Breaking Bad to as graceful a conclusion as any milestone TV drama has had over the past decade, and now (teamed with Peter Gould, who was a senior writer/producer on Breaking Bad), he’s taken a shot at extending his signature drama with the new BETTER CALL SAUL.

Gilligan and Gould have smartly positioned Saul so that it takes place within the recognizable Breaking Bad universe, but with a different timeframe and tone.  Although Bad fans will be fascinated by the black-and-white prologue sequence, which takes place in something like the present day and shows us a post-Walter White Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) as the miserable, paranoid manager of an Omaha shopping mall Cinnabon, the main action of the new series begins in 2002, several years before Saul would begin representing his most notable client.  Life is so different for Saul that he’s not even Saul Goodman yet–he’s Jimmy McGill, a struggling small-time lawyer whose closet-sized office is literally a closet behind a Korean nail salon, subsisting on public defender pittances.  Jimmy/Saul’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean) was a big-time lawyer at a major Albuquerque firm, but suffered a nervous breakdown (he’s obsessed with electromagnetic energy) and has been talked into keeping himself on “sabbatical” by the unscrupulous senior partner (Patrick Fabian) instead of cashing out.

The second half of the premiere episode begins to show Jimmy on the road to becoming the schemer we know as Saul, as he plots with a pair of twin skateboarders who have a car accident racket to give them all a bigger payday by having one of them hit by the wife of an accused embezzler whom Jimmy hopes to lure as a client.  Things, however, don’t go as planned, and the cliffhanger ending finds Jimmy in the clutches of a familiar Breaking Bad face:  the menacing Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), which should allow Saul to do what we know he does best, squirming his way out of tight situations.

Better Call Saul was ordered straight to series, so it doesn’t have a “pilot” as such, and certain elements are fragmentary in the opening hour.  Fan favorite Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) will be a series regular, but he only appears in a single scene, as a courthouse parking lot attendant Jimmy runs up against.  One also assumes that Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a partner at Jimmy’s brother’s firm who shares a cigarette with Jimmy, will figure more prominently in what follows, and Seehorn, who was an effectively tart component of the wan Whitney and Franklin & Bash ensembles, should pair well with Odenkirk.

Even at this early stage, Better Call Saul has an assurance that few new shows can muster at the start.  One of the notable facets of Breaking Bad was that it was as mindful of its visuals as it was of dialogue and plot, and Gilligan’s direction of the opening hour holds with that tradition, from the distorted lenses used to create Saul’s Omaha hell to the familiar (but slightly more color-saturated) dry New Mexico of the main story.  Odenkirk, of course, has already been playing his character for years, and is thoroughly expert at it (the same goes for Banks), and Gilligan and Gould have already broadened Saul/Jimmy’s world, giving him more dramatic texture than he sometimes had as Breaking Bad‘s shyster.

It’s hard to imagine Better Call Saul not getting at least initial attention from Breaking Bad fans (and AMC is helping it out by giving it The Walking Dead‘s midseason premiere as a lead-in), and in its early going, the prequel seems poised to satisfy those fans in a way that’s similar enough to be comforting but different enough to escape comparisons it can’t meet.  For a network that’s been flailing when zombies aren’t taking up its air, it’s a welcome sign of potential long-term stability.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."