Television

Better Call Saul Is Better Than You Ever Thought It Could Be

AMC’s prequel tells the origin story of lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad

Black and white. A woman pours a dark grain onto a white surface, and rolls the whole thing up. She cuts the roll into discs, and arranges them in a pan. She bakes the cinnamon buns and slathers them with icing.

A mustachioed man with a sweaty comb-over tucked into a Cinnabon visor turns on the smoothie machine. He notices a tall, bald thug-type in the corner, eyeing him suspiciously over his coffee. He steels himself as the man walks toward him, exhaling when he walks by to greet a friend in the mall’s corridor.

At home, the mustachioed man makes a stiff drink and pulls a video cassette tape out of a shoebox in the closet. As he watches, we see reflected in his glasses both the tears from his own eyes and the first splash of color we’ve seen so far: the pink and yellow of the screen in front of him, with a narration by a brash and seedy lawyer.

“Better Call—”

Blackout.

Since the finale of Breaking Bad more than a year ago, fans of the series have eagerly awaited this day. AMC’s prequel Better Call Saul tells the origin story of lawyer Saul Goodman—mister “number one on your speed dial, right next to your weed dealer”—before he got involved in all of Walter White’s drama.

The series premiere aired Sunday night, with the second episode airing Monday night at the show’s regular time. It was originally supposed to be a half-hour comedy, with Bob Odenkirk’s signature brand of committed physical and emotional comedy leading the way. But the show’s creators instead opted for a full hour, and the trailer for the first season demonstrates a new vision: a dark, dramatic comedy bred from the best of Odenkirk’s Breaking Bad character.

From the start, Odenkirk’s performance steals the show. When he is late to a court appearance, even the lack of his presence commands the room. One moment, he is an insecure lawyer whispering to himself over a dirty courtroom urinal. Then he bursts into the courtroom and delivers an impassioned—if stilted—defense of three 16-year-old “knuckleheads” who, it turns out, are merely guilty of trespassing.

Wait, no. They broke into a morgue, sawed off a dead man’s head, had sex with it, and filmed the whole thing. It’s a Saul Goodman moment if we ever saw one.

But this isn’t Saul—yet. This is James McGill, a broke up-and-comer who fakes a secretary’s voice on his cell and drives a loud yellow Suzuki Esteem with one orange door. His office is the boiler room of a Chinese restaurant. He’s bootstrappy and honest. (Well, maybe only one of those things is true.)

“I don’t go looking for guilty people to represent,” he tells a potential client, with a sly smile. “I mean, who need that aggravation, right?”

Better_Call_Saul_61082Every moment feels like an episode of Breaking Bad, from the direction that places the viewer in the center of uncomfortable situations, eye-to-eye with the situation’s most uncomfortable person, or in intimate close-ups of the characters’ most private moments, to the wide, drab shots that set the scene of the wide, drab city of Albuquerque.

Yet something about this is entirely different. This is not just a series of Saul moments, lifted text and tone from its predecessor. It is differentiated by its pace and the sophistication of the jokes. They fall squarely in the space between cringeworthy and throw-your-head-back-and-guffaw-worthy, leaving nothing behind but a desire for more just like them. Breaking Bad had a way of giving audiences exactly what they least expected, but Better Call Saul does it—well, better. And much, much funnier.

The pilot and second episode are helmed by Breaking Bad veterans, creator Vince Gilligan and Michelle McLaren, respectively. McLaren famously directed the Breaking Bad episodes “4 Days Out” (season two, where Walt and Jesse kill the RV’s battery and get stuck in the desert) and “Gliding All Over” (the final season’s mid-season finale where Hank has his big realization about the true identity of Heisenberg). Their influence shows, but I wouldn’t say you must love Breaking Bad to love this, or vice versa. It’s surely its own show, with its own priorities. If you did happen to watch Breaking Bad, Easter eggs already abound. And I’ll bet that by the end of the first episode, you’ll care about Saul Goodman in a way you never thought you could.

Better Call Saul airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on AMC.

Also Premiering This Week: The Slap

At a family barbeque in the backyard of a wealthy townhome, the adults smile, drink and eat on an elevated porch while children laugh and play in the yard below. One child picks up a baseball bat and begins swinging it around and at the other children, threatening to hit them. After the child’s parents don’t intervene, one man—the father of one of the other children—stands up, storms down to the yard and disciplines the boy. A childish kick to the shin is met with a slap across the face.

So begins the saga of The Slap, an eight-episode miniseries based on an Australian series of the same name, which is in turn based on a 2008 novel by Christos Tsiolkas. Each episode will focus on one attendee of the party, unraveling their morals and flaws. The all-star cast includes Zachary Quinto, Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton, Uma Thurman, Melissa George and Brian Cox.

The Slap premieres Thursday, February 12 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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