Prequels are a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Drooling fans who all but insist on origin stories and retrospective trips into the canon fodder and footnotes of their favorite character franchises will pretty much always be in the mood for a prequel, a sequel, a spinoff, an offshoot — anything that amounts to more.
The rest of us, who perhaps still pride ourselves on a more levelheaded and skeptical approach to our pop-culture consumption, need to be wooed anew each time. For us, if a prequel, sequel or spinoff of a TV show or film doesn’t measure up to the original material, then we can easily tune it out.
Whether they were compelled by network executives or wooed by their own success or simply desired to delve deeper into the gritty lore of their hit series “Breaking Bad” (I assume it’s a combination of all three), Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have delivered the goods: “Better Call Saul,” premiering Sunday on AMC, is a worthy companion piece to “Breaking Bad,” though it is different in a few subtle, if notable, ways.
Zeroing in on the “Breaking Bad” character voted Most Likely to Succeed With a Backstory, “Better Call Saul” is about the life and misadventures of a hapless Albuquerque attorney who will eventually evolve into the far sleazier Saul Goodman we know and love. Perhaps most surprising in the first episode is the discovery that Saul himself is an invented identity.
Circa 2002 — six years before the events in “Breaking Bad” begin — Saul is one James M. McGill, Esq. (Bob Odenkirk), who ekes out a living by picking up excess public-defense cases on an ad-hoc basis at the Albuquerque courthouse, for which he is paid $700 a pop. The Jimmy we meet here possesses only a fraction of the swagger and underworld expertise that made Saul so valuable to Walter White. He gets by on his mouth, but that doesn’t get him very far.
Jimmy keeps an office and lives in the back of a Vietnamese nail salon. He drives a beat-up Suzuki Esteem, in which, departing the courthouse parking lot each day, he’s always a dollar or two short to pay the fee. Each time he winds up in a stare-down standoff (reminiscent of those old Warner Bros. sheepdog/coyote cartoons) with the booth attendant, whom “Breaking Bad” fans will gladly recognize as Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the steel-nerved fixer who worked for drug kingpin Gus Fring. As episodes unfold, we’ll find that Mike is more than just a cameo here.
Any “Breaking Bad” fan who prides herself or himself on tiny details (or even the hint of connections between this story and the original series) will find that those skills transfer quite well; at the same time, casual viewers of “Breaking Bad” needn’t enroll in a refresher course. And as for people who never watched “Breaking Bad,” you’re on your own, as usual. I suppose the story won’t be hard to follow, but what you’ll be missing, perhaps, is an appreciation of the necessary loopiness and meandering tendencies that form a “Breaking Bad”-style narrative.
The end of the first episode pays off with still another cameo from the old show, which sets off a chain of events that will acquaint Jimmy with the outer fringes of criminal defense at which Saul eventually becomes so adroit. But, when talking to reporters last month at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, Gilligan and Gould said they hoped “Better Call Saul” won’t turn into an Easter-egg hunt for “Breaking Bad” fans.
Viewers should expect Saul’s story to foreshadow Walter White’s in only the most peripheral ways. Cameos will be kept to a minimum and only in service to the overall arc of “Better Call Saul.” Aaron Paul’s “Breaking Bad” character, Jesse Pinkman, would still be in middle school in 2002, Gilligan surmised, so count him out — at this point. And don’t expect to see Bryan Cranston as Walter.
Because, really, this is Odenkirk’s moment to shine — and he does, particularly in scenes where Jimmy has to talk his way out of desperate situations, whether in the courtroom or bound and gagged in the desert awaiting torture or worse at the hands of some new acquaintances.
The moment the duct tape is ripped from Jimmy’s mouth, in Monday night’s second episode (which will air in the series’s regular time slot), Odenkirk launches into a manic symphony of verbal B.S., a philosophical monologue that touches on the nature of vengeance. In a later montage of Jimmy at work on multiple court cases, “Better Call Saul” gives off a hint that it can be just as enchanting as its predecessor.
And because this is a character we already know (or think we know), “Better Call Saul” can take advantage of some of Gilligan and company’s trademark quirks. It can — and does — skip around on the timeline. Black-and-white scenes that open episode 1 are set in a post-“Breaking Bad” bleakness, quickly flashing back to the vibrant, high-desert color and light of shabby Albuquerque — which is understood to be the past. The third episode flashes back further still for a moment, to what appears to be the 1980s. Overall, the show feels more experimental and absurd, possibly even more playful than “Breaking Bad.”
The sailing isn’t all smooth. Three episodes in, the show’s only weakness rests with the supporting characters, including Michael McKean as Jimmy’s brother, Chuck. He’s a partner at a big law firm, but he’s now living as a shut-in, consumed by a phobia of electricity, wrapping himself in protective foil.
Jimmy is after Chuck’s partner (Patrick Fabian) to cough up a sizable settlement for his brother’s share of the law firm; Jimmy also has an interesting history with another of the firm’s attorneys (Rhea Seehorn). And as far as scary vatos go (what would “Better Call Saul” be without at least one?), Michael Mando (“Orphan Black”) comes along as Nacho Varga, with a familiar hunger for criminal entrepreneurialism that speaks to Jimmy’s darkest instincts. Still, it’s difficult for “Better Call Saul” to interest us in anyone but Odenkirk, who owns, and even sometimes overwhelms, every scene he’s in.
Watching “Better Call Saul” find its way is reminiscent of that first season of “Breaking Bad,” when hardly anyone was watching and those of us who were watching couldn’t quite figure it out. That may explain why AMC has already ordered a second season, allowing the show plenty of room to stretch. We’re not starting from the base here, but there is a strong feeling in “Better Call Saul” that the climb back up the mesa is going to be a complicated journey.
Better Call Saul (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC. The second episode will air in the show’s regular time slot, on Monday at 10 p.m.