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TV Quickshots #21

Better Call Saul (AMC; 2015)

The history of the television spin-off is a mixed one. For every Frasier or The Colbert Report that carves out a distinct legacy from its parent program, there are shows like Joanie Loves Chachi or The Lone Gunmen that fizzle out and become mere footnotes to the epochal ratings hits that spawned them. Vince Gilligan was a co-creator of The Lone Gunmen, an X-Files spin-off. He seems to have been stung by its failure but not enough to be put off by the spin-off concept. And so, after he stewarded an epochal television phenomenon called Breaking Bad, his next project jumped off from that, as if to prove that it could be done and done very well.

Better Call Saul is the resulting show, and it blows out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. A prequel to Breaking Bad that is already stronger in its first season than its creative sire was at the same juncture, Better Call Saul details the career of Walter and Jesse’s shifty law-bending legal advisor Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) before he encounters the meth-dealing duo whose dangerous activities land him in a sort of underworld version of witness protection. The artfully-shot, black-and-white opening sequence of the series pilot shows the now-anonymous Goodman toiling as a Cinnabon manager in Nebraska and screening the videotapes of the corny old television ads for his law practice in sad nostalgia.

This sets up Better Call Saul as an extended flashback narrative to Saul’s younger days, a document of his path to the wrong side of the law on which he had his feet firmly set when he met Walter White. Leaving behind a mis-spent con-man youth in Illinois and a close shave with serious jailtime, the lawyer who will become Saul Goodman is struggling to establish a practice under his birth name, James “Jimmy” McGill. Bitter at the big-shot Albuquerque law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill for refusing to take him on after he scraped his way to the bar while working in their mail room, McGill does thankless public defender work while hustling for clients out of his office in a closet at the back of a nail salon (where the Vietnamese matron won’t even allow him a free sip of cucumber water). He’s saddled with an older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill (Michael McKean), who was once a top barrister and partner at HH&M but now won’t leave his house and is afflicted with an semi-hypochondriacal “allergy” to electromagnetism that renders him professionally and even personally helpless.

Better Call Saul is sharply written, seeding early episodes with tokens of Breaking Bad lore and characters that previously have (or, in the timeline of the televised world, later will) featured in that Emmy-winning drama. In addition to Odenkirk (who is uniformly superb, clinching a suprise career renaissance), Saul’s laconic, sarcastic “fixer” operative Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) finds his way into the criminal underworld and, one must assume, eventually Goodman’s employ after a messy exit from the Philadelphia Police Department. Additionally, volatile, dangerous drug dealer Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), a major antagonist early in Breaking Bad‘s run, crosses paths with Jimmy McGill early on. Jimmy demonstrates his exceptional courtroom skills more fully in a tense and potentially fatal encounter in the desert with Tuco and his thugs than he ever does in an actual courtroom.

Better Call Saul shares Breaking Bad‘s core themes of thwarted masculine primacy transmuted into trespasses into the criminal underworld, its social canvas of New West urban sprawl and institutional crookedness, and its portrait of moral death by a thousand cuts. Jimmy McGill’s gradual march towards Saul Goodman involves minute adjustments in the trajectory of his moral arc that become ever greater and more fateful, very much like Walter White’s. Although the traumatic run-in with Tuco recalibrates Jimmy’s compass to a virtuous true north, he finds that Doing the Right Thing often has a fairly steep cost, while brushing aside such white knight predilections can carry immediate dividends (with the harsh costs waiting further off). Veering towards an end point that those familiar with Breaking Bad are aware of and breathlessly anticipate, Better Call Saul is a different serial narrative animal. We know where Jimmy McGill is headed, broadly speaking. But if Gilligan continues to provide such superb storytelling material, we don’t mind if he takes his time getting there.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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  1. May 14, 2016 at 4:46 pm

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