“Spinoff!” Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul? Hi, I’ m Troy McClure.”
“Quality TV”, as we call the sorts of shows being produced today for binge consumption, hasn’t really produced any spinoffs. Of course, in the heyday of prime time comedy and drama, they were part of the fabric of popular culture. And some (Fraiser, for example, and let’s not forget Angel) did quite well at creating their own little slice of a pre-established universe. But, as implied by Mr McClure’s buoyant statement to start off “The Simpsons Spin Off Showcase,” more often than not a spinoff was a producer’s wet dream: all the built-in audience of a sequel without the expensive cast or location. And if we were really going to pick one show out of the pantheon of Quality TV to spin off, I don’t think Breaking Bad would have been anyone’s first choice. That show was such a focused, stylish meditation on greed, ego, hubris and a thousand other things told in a uniquely southern style. (The show could just as well have been titled “The Ballad of Walter White”, which would have reminded us of its mythic narrative roots.)
Of all the characters in Breaking Bad, two really stood out as having rich, complex lives apart from the central action of the show, the mysterious Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and the Criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, payed by comedian Bob Odenkirk. (He’s literally a “Criminal” lawyer, as Jesse Pinkman points out in his first appearance.) While Esposito is holding out for a “Gus: the Early Years” spinoff of his own, Odenkirk dives right into his own spinoff series, debuting last night on AMC, titled Better Call Saul.
Saul, on Breaking Bad, seemed like a shambolic mess, full of low-rent artifice and overcompensation like literally wallpapering his office with the constitution and adopting a Jewish-sounding alias (his real name is Jimmy McGill). But a closer watch reveals that Saul knows his way around. He’s constantly giving voice to words of wisdom, which are promptly ignored by everyone around him, and their loss. While just about every other character on Breaking Bad is finished at the end of the last episode, Saul has built himself a future. He’s the only character who follows through on his plans, and he plans are very well organized. Saul talks his way confidently out of many situations, and in the end, he’s the only one who really “gets away with it all” in the end. Not too shabby. This new show is about how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, the man who outwitted the DEA, the Mexican Cartel and a power-mad Chemistry teacher.
Better Call Saul opens as pretty much a direct sequel to Breaking Bad. Saul mentions late in the former series that “Best case scenario: I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha!” Which is precisely where we find him in a long montage to start the series. Wearing a moustache and glasses, and living under a different name, there he is in his visor and apron, feeding cinnamon buns to hungry Nebraskan shoppers. At night, he pours “Old Fashioned”’s for himself and, when the mood strikes, watches his old “Better Call Saul” commercials, dreaming of the life he’s been forced to leave behind. It’s this life or prison, he must realize, and in some ways it isn’t much of a choice.
We cut from that scene back to 2001 (it still sounds odd to say, “Back in 2001”, but anyhow…), where Jimmy McGill is working as a public defender in Albuquerque, and not making much money at it. His brother, Chuck (played by another brilliant comedian, Michael McKean) is a partner in a very successful law firm, now on a leave of absence due to health problems. Jimmy has been working to support them both, but things aren’t working out. (Pointing to his car at one point, he has the choice line, “The only way that car is worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it!”) The law firm has been offering Chuck a pittance to essentially not claim his real stake in the firm, numbering in the millions of dollars, but rather to keep out of their business and remain on a minimal salary. Jimmy pushes for Chuck to take all the money he can get, but Chuck demurs, saying that eventually he’ll be well enough to return to work.
It’s a tough situation, because Chuck suffers from “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity”, which is not a scientifically recognized disease and more likely represents some form of mental illness. Jimmy, the younger brother, sees all of this clearly but treads lightly, as no one wants to point at Chuck and say, “You’re completely nuts and you need help.” Instead, he leaves his cell phone and keys at the door and enters a house with no electricity, powered by gas lanterns and Chuck typing away at a manual typewriter. McKean, rather than playing Chuck as a raving lunatic, actually humanizes the character a great deal, and the scenes between him and Jimmy are quite powerful, the two actors’ expressions and pauses saying more than the script. These two are brothers, and there’s a lot of love between them, even when things are difficult. Odenkirk and McKean show once again why actors known for comedy can absolutely nail the toughest drama.
The other major plot thread in the first episode involves Jimmy and a pair of brothers who stage car accidents to scam people out of money for fake injuries. Jimmy, with these amateur con artists, snaps into Saul mode so quickly that kind of makes the head spin. A scene set in a skate park where Jimmy sits the two down and proceeds to tell them a long parable with a kicker ending, is classic Saul. He’s part con-man, part Irish Priest, part smooth-talker, part lawyer. But he isn’t quite Saul yet, as the two younger con artists figure out towards the end of working their scheme that they could cut him out completely. It doesn’t quite work out the way they expect, as them, and Saul, wind up being pulled into a house by one of the more notorious “bad guys” from the early seasons of Breaking Bad.
Finally, it’s Odenkirk who sells the show. He’s asked to play a fairly broad range in this premiere episode and does so with absolute confidence. Any doubt that he can carry a show on his own is dispelled here. While some of the supporting roles seem a little “stock” (the entire team at the law firm seems to have been imported from a less-good 90s legal drama), Odenkirk and McKean are solid. Jimmy, like Saul, is a survivor, and his creativity and tenacity, as well as his penchant for bad luck, are all in place even in this early episode. Though he is indeed a criminal, he’s a very sympathetic one.
The $34 question is how much this show resembles Breaking Bad, and on that score I have to say, it’s obvious that it shares DNA with the parent show. Albuquerque itself is still an extremely cinematic place, with those vast distances and sun-bleached streets. It’s a very odd place, and feels like a bit of Casablanca meets the Mos Eisley Cantina. (I’m actually going there tomorrow.) And the assertive, self-conscious cinematic style is very much in place, such as presenting the whole first sequence in black and white (not flattering to the cinnamon buns) or beginning a scene on a very odd angle and lingering on an opening shot. But this is Saul’s story, not Walter White’s, so it lacks the ferocious intensity, and rightly so. But it doesn’t lack all intensity: the first episode ends on a heart-stopping cliffhanger. Thanks to a sympathetic lead character, we’re left with a classic, “I don’t know how ol’ Jimmy is going to get out of this one,” feeling, rather than the existential terror of the parent show. It suits the character, and it demonstrates that Better Call Saul is more than a lighthearted gumshoe story.