The first moments of the series premiere of “Better Call Saul” are shot in black and white, so it takes a moment to recognize the mustachioed manager working behind the mall Cinnabon counter as Saul Goodman—partly because of the lack of color, and partly because this is so tragically far from the fast-paced, darkly comic Saul of “Breaking Bad.” When he returns to his Omaha home, a location that informs the viewer that this is indeed a snapshot of Saul in his post-“Breaking Bad” relocation, he looks shiftily outside his window and closes his blinds. He proceeds not to plan his conniving escape; rather, he inserts into his TV a VHS tape of his old commercials and sits watching them blankly, in a pathetic encapsulation of the immense change his life has undergone.
In these few minutes, showrunner Vince Gilligan quashes any expectation that “Better Call Saul” might be simply a concentration of the comic relief Bob Odenkirk provided on “Breaking Bad.” This is not to say that “Better Call Saul” is never funny, but rather that the humor of this prequel is intensely dark and could hardly be termed “relief.” In the second episode of the two-part premiere, Jimmy McGill (Saul’s real name, and the name he goes by when the show begins) bargains with an enraged Tuco Salamanca in a parody of a lawyer discussing a sentence with a judge and manages to talk him down from murdering two men to just breaking their legs. Jimmy’s office, from which he is struggling to begin a law firm while working as a pro bono defense attorney, is located at the back of a nail salon, a juxtaposition that is amusing until he desperately tries to rearrange his furniture and make the tiny space presentable when an apparent client comes knocking.
Such a reversal of viewers’ expectations might have been a terrible choice were Bob Odenkirk not such a capable actor. He masterfully played the over-the-top Saul of “Breaking Bad” without verging into ridiculousness; in only the first two episodes of “Better Call Saul,” he has already proven his skill as a dramatic actor. His relationship with Chuck, his brother and an accomplished lawyer who has had to leave his firm due to emerging psychosis, is tenderly and subtly depicted. In a scene in which he argues with his brother over the latter’s wearing a “space blanket” to protect himself from Jimmy’s cell phone, Odenkirk beautifully communicates the conflicted frustration that comes with dealing with a loved one who is as sick as Chuck is.
But Chuck’s situation also illustrates the trap into which “Better Call Saul” is in danger of falling: in choosing a tone quite similar to that of “Breaking Bad,” Gilligan has introduced the risk of simply recreating his award-winning show with different characters. The parallels between Chuck and Walt are particularly prominent: both have been somewhat cut out of prosperous companies they helped found, and both suffer from chronic illness. Fortunately, “Better Call Saul” has so many of its own legs to stand on that it has no need to make more callbacks to “Breaking Bad” than it already has. If Gilligan realizes this, “Better Call Saul” has the potential to become another generation-defining show.
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