“Better Call Saul” is no “Breaking Bad.”
“Better Call Saul”
Mondays at 10 p.m.
Ever since the acclaimed meth tragedy aired its brilliant finale one year, four months and 13 days ago (not that I’m counting), a Jesse Pinkman-shaped hole has remained in TV’s collective heart. No other series could ever thrill in quite the same way as “Breaking Bad.” Nothing can ever strike all the same nerves and leave viewers breathless and cursing Vince Gilligan’s name when the end title card flashes across the screen. But “Breaking Bad” is over, and “Better Call Saul” has risen to Heisenberg’s money throne. To be successful, “Saul” needed to assert its independence with a series premiere that leaves all comparisons in the Albuquerque dust.
“Better Call Saul” follows “Breaking Bad” fan-favorite Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, “Nebraska”) back in 2002, when his name was Jimmy McGill and his characteristic bravura and grandiose confidence didn’t extend past the courtroom. Jimmy is introduced as an unglamorous public defender, the very antithesis of Saul. His office is in a cramped corner of a storefront nail salon, he drives a vulgar yellow car that’s a far cry from the smooth Caddy that he drove in “Breaking Bad” and he barely makes $700 defending a couple of little teenage shits who jerked off into a severed head. But even through these pathetic endeavors, Odenkirk’s performance shines with a familiar charisma. His name is Jimmy and he’s got a sleeper sofa in his office, but this dude is Saul Goodman to the core.
But more than escaping his dire financial situation and getting cases that don’t involve masturbating into severed heads, what Jimmy really craves is some adventure in his life. He recalls the days he was known as “Slippin’ Jimmy” of Cicero, the kid who slid on every icy surface in Chicago and collected every injury check he could get his hands on. When Jimmy literally runs into a couple of skater punks and realizes that their intentional dive in front of his car was a Slippin’ Jimmy-level scheme, he can’t help but want to join up. The kids know the business and Jimmy knows the chemistry, so they team up to rip off an embezzling bureaucrat and reappropriate his stolen cash into their empty pockets. Unlike Walter White, Jimmy McGill already has the slimy DNA, and all he needs is one catalyst to help him break bad.
Where “Better Call Saul” falters, though, is in its shameless homage to its parent series. The show makes a fairly convincing case for why it should be seen as a separate entity from “Breaking Bad,” but “Saul” still occasionally slips back into “Breaking Bad”-lite territory. The premiere’s opening shows Saul working in a Nebraska Cinnabon store, frowning and making melancholy cinnamon rolls to an incongruous musical soundtrack. Stylistically, the black and white visuals and montage editing could be straight out of an episode of “Breaking Bad,” but the scene also lacks a more metaphorical color. In showing viewers what happened to Saul after he left the “Breaking Bad” universe, “Saul” assumes that its viewers need a cheap hook to engage with Jimmy’s story. “Breaking Bad” is dead and gone, and “Saul” would be wiser not to dig up its bones.
“Better Call Saul” also spotlights a few “Breaking Bad” alums in addition to Odenkirk, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, “Community”) and Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz, “Major Crimes”) in the first two episodes alone. Their characters are incorporated with varying degrees of success. Mike runs the booth at the parking lot where Jimmy parks his car, and while it’s great to see Banks again, the fact that he’s manning a parking lot booth makes little sense. Wasn’t Mike supposed to be a former Philadelphia cop? Does this parking lot nonsense take place before or after he became a professional “fixer” and henchman? Why didn’t he continue to give Saul shit about always forgetting to pay for a fifth sticker when the two were in “Breaking Bad?” So far, Mike hasn’t been given sufficient material to justify his being on this show, but I trust that Jonathan Banks wouldn’t agree to appear on “Saul” unless he had better prospects than this silly cameo.
At the end of the first half of the premiere, Jimmy finds a gun pointed to his face and some shadow in the doorway threatening to shoot it. The camera swivels to reveal Tuco, perpetually angry and protective of his elderly relatives as we remember him from “Breaking Bad.” It’s an effective cliffhanger, but one that assumes that everyone watching has seen “Breaking Bad.” This is a dangerous assumption for a network to make when it needs a show to gather its own unique fanbase. Tuco is incorporated into the plot more smoothly in the next episode, but it still plays like a re-hashing of the episode “Grilled” in the second season of “Breaking Bad.” Tuco holds innocent people hostage while his old family member is home, shouts a lot and threatens them until a dire injury puts an end to the situation. Fans of the parent show have seen this all before, and it’s unfortunate that “Better Call Saul” so actively refuses to break new ground with its plot.
“Better Call Saul” doesn’t deserve all these comparisons. When you strip away its artless revision of “Breaking Bad” material, the dark humor is sublimely biting, and Jimmy is a compelling subject for character study. But “Saul” needs to divorce itself from Saul Goodman, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Jimmy shouldn’t aim to become some mythic, lawyer version of Heisenberg. Corruption already pumps through his veins, whether he’s Jimmy from the block, Saul the king or Gene in a sad mall Cinnabon – we know exactly who this man is at his core. “Better Call Saul” already holds promise of being great on its own, if only it would stop leaning on “Breaking Bad” and give this lawyer his justice.