By Ygal Kaufman
It’s All Good, Man
The TV graveyard is littered with ill-advised spin-offs like Joanie Loves Chachi, and failed but clever ones like The Lone Gunmen. Occasionally spin-offs can even eclipse the success of their parents, like Law & Order SVU. It remains early, but AMC’s Better Call Saul, which has some of the finest pedigree in TV history, being spun off Breaking Bad, which pretty much everyone agrees was basically perfect, is off to a promising start.
Saul follows Saul Goodman, a sleazy lawyer played by comedy legend Bob Odenkirk, in the years before crossing paths with Walter White in Breaking Bad to famously disastrous results. Interestingly the show does something it didn’t have to do which is risky: it starts from the end of Breaking Bad, and if you haven’t seen it, you may not understand the gravity of the beginning of this show. Which would be a shame.
In order to talk about Saul, I have to spoil Breaking Bad, but I feel like that’s not such a big deal at this point. Here goes: the end of that show left Saul running for his life with no payout. That’s why the viewer must sadly nod knowingly when this show opens on poor Saul working at a Cinnabon and fearing for his life from every customer who gives him a strange look. That’s one of the interesting ways this show differs from its parent; we know right from the outset that things end badly for Saul, yet he’s not diagnosed with cancer, so the stakes in the short term aren’t as high for him. It’s the opposite of Breaking Bad, which diagnosed its protagonist with terminal cancer in the first episode but then let us wonder how things might turn out.
With this lighter tone, the first episode plays more like a super hero movie, or a black comedy about revenge, where the hero decides to cut loose and exposes himself for the _____________ (fill in winning role here, could be anything from wizard to bank robber) that he was truly meant to be. In White’s case, it was a great meth-dealing gangster. In Saul’s case, it’s being a slimy weasel. And Odenkirk plays that perfectly slimy weasel so well. You want to wring his neck, but you also want to cut him a break. He’s the quintessential Schmoe.
And the essence of the Schmoe is his lack of control over his own fate. Where the traditional hero has control over his fate and can win the day by conquering the villain, the Schmoe’s villain is himself and he can only win by losing. Most importantly, if he ever has a goal, his hubris in thinking he could ever even hope to control his own destiny will cause him to fail.
When you’re a two-bit lawyer trying to scrape by and trick people into hiring you, sometimes failing means becoming indentured to a psychotic drug cartel big wig. Life can be complicated like that. Vince Gilligan, the creator of both shows, elegantly directs the premiere of Saul with the confidence that only comes from having a beyond-rock-solid, built-in audience. The Saul following was already very strong heading into this show, which can create a cushy safety net, but it doesn’t look like Gilligan will need it. The premiere was funny, dark, quirky, and thrilling in all the ways anyone could have hoped for. And the throwbacks to the source material were plentiful enough, without being obnoxious, that even the most skeptical fanboy should approve.
It certainly didn’t have quite the gravitas that the first episode of Breaking Bad had; it’s hard to clone that level of tragedy without resorting to terminal illness. But it still hinted at the level of human drama we can expect going forward, with a weird subplot featuring the great Michael McKean.
It gave us a good look at all the different sides we may see on this show: Saul the lawyer, Saul the conman, Saul the desperate weasel, Saul the hero. That’s what made Saul such a ripe target character for a spin-off to keep the madness of Breaking Bad alive. He encompasses even more faces and more internal dissonance than White did. He makes Walt look positively one-dimensional, so the possibilities for this new experiment are nearly endless.
So is it Maude or Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior? You know, it’s Saul Goodman.
>Better Call Saul premiered this past Sunday and airs every Monday at 10 p.m. on AMC.