'Better Call Saul,' The Prequel To 'Breaking Bad,' Stands On Its Own | KERA News

'Better Call Saul,' The Prequel To 'Breaking Bad,' Stands On Its Own

Feb 4, 2015
Originally published on February 6, 2015 3:35 pm

I'm guessing that the first thing fans of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad want to know is whether its AMC prequel series, Better Call Saul, premiering Sunday and Monday, is anywhere near as good as the original — which was TV at its very best. And I'm also guessing that people who haven't yet worked their way through Breaking Bad -- and, really, by now, why haven't you? — are wondering whether they can enjoy this new series without having absorbed the old one.

So let me announce with enthusiasm at the outset: yes and yes. Better Call Saul not only stands right alongside Breaking Bad as a stunningly entertaining TV series, it stands on its own. Oh, if you know Breaking Bad well, you'll love some of the surprise treats and appearances heading your way — but even if you're a complete stranger to the character played by Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul, you're in for a great ride. Better Call Saul has the same tight plots, rich characters and delicious twists as its parent series. Yet Better Call Saul isn't a reboot; it's a preboot.

The central story of this new AMC series tells how Jimmy McGill, a scrappy, low-rent public defender in Albuquerque, N.M., came to adopt a sleazy new persona as Saul Goodman, a criminal lawyer specializing in representing unabashed criminals. If Saul were a superhero, this would be his origin story — and that's really what this show is about, because McGill, from the start, does have a superpower. It's his quick wit — and his fast mouth.

Better Call Saul is co-created by Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad, and Peter Gould, the writer-producer who created the Saul character way back in Season 2. Together, they've come up with something very ambitious, and yet very playful. For starters — literally — this prequel series actually begins as a sequel, set somewhere in the snowy North, after the events of Breaking Bad. Saul is hiding in plain sight, just as he said he would — with a new name and a blend-into-the-woodwork job, managing a Cinnabon stand at a local mall. Yet he's terrified that even in that public a place, danger and death lurk behind every corner, and can be read in every unsmiling face. To me, it's as if Better Call Saul starts precisely where The Sopranos suddenly stopped.

There are two stylistic choices in this opening scene that ought to sell viewers on Better Call Saul immediately. One is that this scene, set in the "current" timeline after the end of Breaking Bad, is in black and white — that's how bleak Saul's new life is. And for this new show's first seven minutes, Saul doesn't say a word. Not one. This guy who lived and prospered with his gift of gab, like a courtroom Sgt. Bilko, is completely silent for what in TV terms is an eternity. It's only when he goes home, pours a drink, gets bored watching television and slides an old videocassette into his VCR to watch a series of his vintage TV ads that we hear his voice for the first time. The older Saul listens and watches wistfully, as director Gilligan closes in on his weary face.

After that, the series flashes back to 2002, long before those ads were produced, when the future Saul Goodman was still a hustling attorney named Jimmy McGill. Now the show switches to color — a reversal of the usual cinema dynamic of color for the present and black-and-white for the pastand Better Call Saul really takes off.

I'm determined not to spoil any surprises here, but in the first hour alone, there's one that made me smile and another that made me gasp. And it shouldn't be surprising, given how Gilligan cast Malcolm in the Middle sitcom actor Bryan Cranston and allowed him to blossom as the Emmy-winning dramatic actor of Breaking Bad, that comic actor Bob Odenkirk is given such weight and responsibility here. But he is, and Odenkirk is thrilling — another brilliant, genre-crossing role from another gifted actor.

There are plenty of funny moments in Better Call Saul — and, at least in the opening episode, some very overt stylistic nods to a few classic films from the '70s. But there's drama and darkness, too — even though we know Jimmy McGill will survive the flashbacks in this series, there's still a lot of tension — and watching him transform is going to be a blast.

David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Sunday and Monday, the AMC cable network presents the two-night premiere of "Better Call Saul," starring Bob Odenkirk as a fast-talking struggling lawyer. It's the much-anticipated spinoff prequel to "Breaking Bad," which our TV critic David Bianculli considers the best drama series ever produced for television. And "Better Call Saul," he says, is off to a great start.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I'm guessing that the first thing fans of Vince Gilligan's "Breaking Bad" want to know is whether its AMC prequel series "Better Call Saul" is anywhere near as good as the original, which was TV at its very best. And I'm also guessing that people who haven't yet worked their way through "Breaking Bad" - and really, by now, why not? - are wondering whether they can enjoy this new series without having absorbed the old one. So let me announce with enthusiasm at the outset, yes and yes. "Better Call Saul" not only stands right alongside "Breaking Bad" as a stunningly entertainingly TV series, it stands on its own. Oh, if you know "Breaking Bad" well, you'll love some of the surprise treats and appearances heading your way. But even if you're a complete stranger to the character played by Bob Odenkirk in "Better Call Saul," you're in for a great ride.

"Better Call Saul" has the same tight plots, rich characters and delicious twists as its parent series. Yet, "Better Call Saul" isn't a reboot. It's a pre-boot. The central story of this new AMC series tells how Jimmy McGill, a scrappy, low-rent public defender in Albuquerque, N.M., came to adopt a sleazy new persona as Saul Goodman, a criminal lawyer specializing in representing unabashed criminals. If Saul Goodman were a superhero, this would be his origin story. And that's really what this show is about because Jimmy McGill, from the start, does have a superpower. It's his quick wit, his fast mouth.

"Better Call Saul" is co-created by Gilligan, who created "Breaking Bad," and Peter Gould, the writer-producer who created the Saul Goodman character way back in season two. Together, they've come up with something very ambitious and yet, very playful, here. For starters - literally - this prequel series actually begins as a sequel, set somewhere in the snowy North after the events of "Breaking Bad." Saul is hiding in plain sight, just as he said he would, with a new name and a blend-into-the-woodwork job, managing a Cinnabon concession at a local mall. Yet, he's terrified that even in that public a place, danger and death lurk behind every corner and can be read in every unsmiling face.

To me, it's as if "Better Call Saul" starts precisely where "The Sopranos" suddenly stopped. There are two stylistic choices in this opening scene that ought to sell viewers on "Better Call Saul" immediately. One is that this scene, set in the current timeline after the end of "Breaking Bad," is in black and white. That's how bleak Saul's new life is. And for this new show's first seven minutes, Saul doesn't say a word - not one. This guy who lived and prospered with his gift of gab, like a courtroom Sgt. Bilko, is completely silent for what in TV terms is an eternity. It's only when he goes home, pours a drink, gets bored watching television and slides an old video cassette into his VCR to watch a series of his vintage TV ads, that we hear his voice for the first time. The older Saul listens and watches wistfully as director Gilligan closes in on his weary face.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Don't let false allegations bully you into an unfair fight. Hi, I'm Saul Goodman, and I will do the fighting for you. No charge is too big for me. When legal forces have you cornered, better call Saul. I'll get your case dismissed. I'll give you the defense you deserve. Why? Because I'm Saul Goodman, attorney at law. I investigate, advocate, persuade and most importantly, win. Better call Saul.

BIANCULLI: After that, the series flashes back to 2002 - long before those ads were produced - when the future Saul Goodman was still a hustling attorney named Jimmy McGill. Now the show switches to color - a reversal of the usual cinema dynamic of color for the present and black and white for the past - and "Better Call Saul" really takes off.

I'm determined not to spoil any surprises here, but in the first hour alone, there's one that made me smile and another that made me gasp. And it shouldn't be surprising, given how Gilligan cast "Malcolm In The Middle" sitcom actor Bryan Cranston and allowed him to blossom as the Emmy-winning dramatic actor of "Breaking Bad," that comic actor Bob Odenkirk is given such weight and responsibility here. But he is, and Odenkirk is thrilling - another brilliant, genre-crossing role from another gifted actor.

Here's Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, trying to persuade a young accountant and his wife to allow him to represent them. You can hear the pitch, but at the same time, you can almost smell the desperation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Look, all I knew is what I read in the paper, and, typically, when money goes missing from the county treasury and the number here is 1.6 million...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As wife) Well, that's an accounting...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As accountant) Accounting discrepancy.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) It's a discrepancy, absolutely. But, typically, when that happens, the police look at the treasurer and since that person is - I just think a little pro-activity may be in order.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As accountant) I just think I'd look guilty if I hired a lawyer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As wife) Yeah.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Well, actually, it's getting arrested that makes people look guilty, even the innocent ones. And innocent people get arrested every day and they find themselves in a little room with a detective who acts like he's their best friend. Talk to me, he says. Help me clear this thing up. You don't need a lawyer. Only guilty people need lawyers, and boom - hey, that's when it all goes south. That's when you want someone in your corner, someone who will fight tooth and nail. Lawyers - you know, we're like health insurance. You hope you never need a it, but, man oh man, not having it - no (laughter).

BIANCULLI: There are plenty of funny moments in "Better Call Saul" - and, at least in the opening episodes, some very overt stylistic nods to a few classic films from the '70s. But there's drama and darkness, too. Even though we know Jimmy McGill will survive the flashbacks in this series, there's still a lot of tension. And watching him transform is going to be a blast.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow, we'll talk about a new novel about race, class and identity told from the point of view of the daughter of Afrocentric parents, growing up in the '80s in West Philadelphia. My guest will be Asali Solomon, the author of "Disgruntled." FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.