TV Review – Better Call Saul: Season One; Episodes 1 and 2
Starring Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks and Michael McKean
In the seven years since its humble birth in 2008, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad has seen its reputation transfigure from the mortal ground of ordinary cultural sensation into the hallowed realm of TV dramas deemed by critics and fans alike as History’s Greatest. The show’s first three to four seasons are without question, worthy of that high place.
Laced with macabre black humor that would’ve made Alfred Hitchcock giggle, Bad’s increasingly complex plot cascaded domino-like from one seemingly simple bad decision to an endless variety of disastrous consequences transforming its main character from mild-mannered schoolteacher to ruthless drug lord. From “Mr. Chips to Scarface” went Gilligan’s much quoted description. Though not a character piece, its early seasons maintained credible and compelling characters even in the midst of its ingeniously complex plotting.
Most impressively, Breaking Bad’s first seasons sustained a distinct moral focus, even as we witnessed its protagonist’s slow descent to antagonist. All actions have their consequences, the series demonstrated in graphic detail, not just equal and opposite ones, but horribly unforeseen and exponential ones: Turning the junkie back over into her own vomit isn’t bad for her alone but for multiple others if her father turns out to be an air traffic controller!
Sadly, all of that seemed to fall apart in the series vastly overrated and drawn out final two seasons as it seemingly abandoned both character development and plausibility. It would have been far more interesting and tragic to see Skyler continue her involvement in Walt’s enterprise, becoming equally corrupt herself instead of reverting to her wimpy outraged spouse mode. And was it even remotely believable that ruthless hit man Mike would allow himself to be so easily offed by the bumbling Walter White?
Bad meandered toward its predictable denouement with a series of ludicrous story developments (Todd and the Nazis) and uninteresting villains (The Nazis again and Lydia.) All but a few of those final 16 episodes lacked the intensity and forward movement of the early years and seemed merely attempts to keep the show going an extra season to capitalize on its by-then blockbuster success.
In addition to an absurdly implausible and morally bankrupt final episode, Gilligan himself seemed to have sold out, licensing plush toys and action figures for the show’s meth cook characters. Bet those Gale dolls flew off the shelves!
Now, a little over a year after Breaking Bad’s record-breaking finale, we have Better Call Saul, its highly anticipated prequel. Centered on Bad’s gleefully corrupt lawyer (Bob Odenkirk), Saul’s first two episodes begin the story of how an unsuccessful public defender named Jimmy McGill, with a shady past and a penchant for quoting classic movies from the 70’s (most hilariously Network and of all things, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz), becomes that cheesy little shyster we all know and love, Saul Goodman.
So the question is, is the Vince Gilligan of Saul, the inspired genius of Breaking Bad’s superior early seasons or the commercial sellout of its disappointing final ones? Well, so far it’s a little of both.
Too much of this show’s dual-episode premier retreads familiar Bad territory. A storyline involving two small-potato con artists who join Saul in a simple hustle gone wrong, though somewhat effective, replays the kind of whimsical-corruption-turned-to-horror sensibility that Bad did often and better. The second episode’s extended resolution of the first episode cliffhanger is the kind of scene we saw repeatedly on the original series and is, like much of that show’s final seasons, prolonged and contrived.
The show’s best moments are it quirkiest. Odenkirk’s scenes with Michael McKean (of Laverne and Shirley fame) as Saul’s brother Chuck, a once powerful lawyer stricken with an odd and mysterious disease, are wonderfully strange and sweetly engaging. Shot in the dark shadows of a candlelit room, an as yet not fully explained result of Chuck’s illness, their scenes together are informed by a worn-down acceptance of their mutual flaws and a need to protect one another regardless of how dark and bizarre the circumstances.
Odenkirk, as always, is utterly engaging. Having honed his skills on the brilliant sketch comedy, Mr. Show With Bob and Dave, through various guest shots on shows like How I Met Your Mother and films like Nebraska and The Cable Guy, his knack for portraying amiable sleazeballs is uncanny and disarming, pathetic and poignant. McKean, a sadly overlooked dramatic performer, known mostly for comic roles, is his equal in all of their scenes together. His face is a portrait of competence and hope, haunted by shadings of resigned desperation. Together they are the heart and soul of this show.
Hopefully, as it gains its own identity, Saul will abandon its need to emulate the first series and explore its own fresh possibilities. It would be nice to see Gilligan and his writers explore more character development and a little less plotting. Unburdened by the constant and intense drama of it’s predecessor, Better Call Saul, has rich comic potential and a capacity for subtle pathos lacking in the first series, still tinged of course with the dark sensibility that is Vince Gilligan’s trademark.