Following up a television work as critically acclaimed and (later on) popular as Breaking Bad with a spin-off must have been a tricky proposition. Cynical skepticism can run high; why would creator Vince Gilligan go back to the old well, when Breaking Bad undoubtedly granted him enough clout to create whatever original project he wanted? Then again, if he were to make a spinoff about any character from the parent show, it might as well have been either shady lawyer Saul Goodman or no-nonsense hit man Mike Ehrmantraut, and as it turns out Better Call Saul will be delving into both of their back-stories. Amongst the bigger surprises of Saul is that it’s not actually all that different from Breaking Bad in the way it carries itself, and yet it still proves to be a worthy return to sun-kissed Albuquerque.
Like Breaking Bad, Saul’s premiere “Uno” begins with a confounding cold open. Who is this man? Why is he so paranoid and lonely? Why is this in black and white? Breaking Bad fans know that this man is Gene, Saul Goodman’s new identity after cutting himself off from the life that wannabe drug kingpin Walter White left in tatters, but the opening also works for newcomers interested in some mysterious foreshadowing. Rewind things back to 2002, and Saul is but a small-time public defender named Jimmy McGill on the edge of desperation. He has a rickety car, he scrambles for meager payments, and his office is located in the back of a salon. His overconfidence in a recent court case of juvenile delinquency is humorously undercut when the prosecutor wordlessly plays a video showing that Jimmy’s clients are obviously guilty (and a little twisted too).
Jimmy’s bluster doesn’t mean much when he has to weasel his way through life and avoiding paying just $3 for a parking ticket. Gilligan, co-creator Peter Gould, and star Bob Odenkirk successfully recreate the wily qualities that made this character such a delight while also bringing forth never before seen dimension. Jimmy is a down-on-his-luck sad sack with all the cards lined up against him, including his mental illness-stricken older brother Chuck (Michael McKean). Despite this, he has enough gumption and smarts to pull himself out of sticky situations, such as a pair of skateboarding scam artists that he later recruits. Gilligan and Gould conceive this particular story as a drama with a strong emphasis on comedy rather than an out and out laugh fest, cluing us in that they’re taking the material seriously rather than simply riffing on a lark.
In that sense, the show is subtler than those looking for the “Saul Goodman Comedy Hour” will be expecting. Gilligan, who directs this premiere, isn’t want to rush through introductions. “Uno” seemingly avoids overarching plot altogether and instead is purely rooted in character action. The black and white flash-forward contains nary a word of dialogue, and the transition to color in 2002 goes even further to near total silence as the irritated court waits for Jimmy to make his return. Gilligan’s assured pacing allows him to dole out character details while also flexing his visual storytelling muscles, something that six years of the heavily visual Breaking Bad helped to facilitate.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t still time for plenty of lightness, though it comes in understated bursts and often relies on Odenkirk’s central performance. The writers know that the central draw of the show is their leading man, and I can’t recall a single scene that doesn’t feature him. Each sequence is cannily constructed both to pull off a laugh and peel back another layer of Jimmy’s personality/predicament. But his mini-schemes and spirited recreation of Ned Beatty’s big scene in Network are in service of a man who’s not without a shred of integrity. Chuck’s law firm attempts to buy out Chuck’s share by sending a check of significant value that would surely help out Jimmy’s financial situation, and yet he responds by tearing it to shreds and dropping it off in their conference room.
While Mike Ehrmantraut will certainly become a bigger presence later on, it looks like Jimmy’s relationship with his brother will prove to be where the story finds its heart. It also proves that Better Call Saul didn’t need a Walking Dead mid-season premiere to prop itself up, and can stand alone without residing in the shadow of its parent show. There are callbacks and winks for old fans, but Gilligan and Gould are smart enough to avoid cloying fan service so that newcomers don’t feel out the loop. The show returns tonight for it’s second episode, so anyone still on the fence won’t have to wait a week to decide whether to add this to their TV schedule or not.
EPISODE RATING: 8/10