Better Call Saul Season 1, considered
Before the first episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff aired, I mused whether or not it would be AfterM*A*S*H or Frasier. These derivative works are rife with peril, especially when the original material is as hyper-successful as the misadventures of Walter White were. To quote some advice from that dear departed character: tread lightly.
I’m pleased to report that Better Call Saul has defied the odds and overnight become one of the best shows on television, a must-see journey alongside star Bob Odenkirk as he transitions from the no-luck, trying-to-be-good Jimmy McGill to the assured, sleazy Saul Goodman that we first got to know. I was skeptical, and I’m more than happy to let it be known that I was off-base. The show is great.
And I’m going to double-down and commit some heresy: I think it might be better than BB.
Odenkirk is just so damn engaging in the lead, and it’s wonderful that he’s finally getting this chance in the limelight — for old-timey Mr. Show devotees he’s no revelation, but never before has he had this high a profile or this bright a spotlight on him. And he’s knocking it out of the park. (Both he and series mastermind Vince Gilligan are the rare type of Hollywood denizen that you root for. They seem like genuine, nice people.) One of the keys to the success of BB was its supporting cast of characters, from Gus Fring to Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut. They sometimes grew to be more beloved by viewers than Bryan Cranston’s teacher-turned-meth-merchant, whose bad decisions (intentionally) alienated more and more as the seasons rolled on. This was especially the case with Mike, who became perhaps the favorite — it was the beginning of the end for Walt being in the fans’ good graces when he double-crossed him and plugged him in the gut. Mike is back for Saul, and he was the focus on one of this debut season’s better episodes, which revealed the wrong turn that brought this crooked Philly cop to Albuquerque. But it’s a testament to Odenkirk that, as much I might love Mike and his cagey world-weariness, I want the spotlight on Jimmy . He’s utterly fascinating, from his relationship to his crazy brother (Michael McKean, another comic actor who can do excellent dramatic work — their airing of grievances in the penultimate episode was a heartbreaker) to the way he consistently goes against his own interest to try to keep on the straight and narrow.
His salon closet office. The cucumber water. His Matlock suits. Hamlindigo Blue. Elder law. His endearing, affectionate friendship with a beautiful, big-firm attorney. The fact that, despite his rotten luck and his crooked, easiest-path inclinations, he’s underneath it all a hell of a lawyer, one with the priceless gift of gab and enough dogged determination to dumpster dive and tape together shredded documents. Seeing that the flashes of conscience we glimpsed with BB Saul are at the heart of Jimmy, who adopts his trademark irreverent patter as a professional and personal survival skill. It’s all good.
Saul isn’t as uncomfortable a watch as BB, which you sometimes viewed through your hands, terrified of Walt’s ever increasing, ever more precarious web of lies — like a teetering stack of Jenga blocks. This one is funnier, sweeter in a way, but with an equally potent, fascinating narrative. Each has at its center a character evolving, a human being finding an unfortunate groove where he feels oh so alive. We never knew how Walt’s story was going to finish, though no one ever doubted that it wouldn’t end well. We know the Cinnabon destiny of Jimmy/Saul, which was shown at the beginning of the first episode in stark black and white — the bland Kansas to the vibrant Oz of Saul. The quality bell-weather of the latter’s show is that, for once in a prequel, the core lack of suspense doesn’t matter in the least.
This ain’t The Tortellis, people. Season One ends tonight. Season Two can’t get here fast enough, hopefully with a higher episode order.