[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Like any other spinoff/prequel, Better Call Saul has the unenviable task of building its own unique identity and personality while still maintaining some sense of the TV show it's following. It's an issue that has plagued spinoffs before, but one that is compounded tenfold when the show being followed happens to be regarded as one of the best television series in the last 20 years, if not of all time. To put it mildly, Bob Odenkirk, Vince Gilligan, and co-showrunner/co-creator Peter Gould all have their work cut out for them – in large part because of the work they had done before.
The shadow of Breaking Bad looms large over the launch of Better Call Saul. From the onset, there's a temptation to hark back to the storyline from whence it came, and to settle into the familiar rhythm of "the one who knocks."And for a brief moment, it seems as though director Vince Gilligan is just as susceptible to temptation as everyone else. The series premiere, 'Uno,' opens up with a familiar black-and-white montage set to music. It begins with a set of skilled hands spreading some indistinct concoction across a countertop. This is followed by shots of numerous ingredients going through various stages of mixing and cooking, until the product – cinnamon buns – is ready to be presented to eager clientele who are, no doubt, jonesing for a (sugar) rush.
For Saul Goodman – now Gene, the mustachioed manager of an Omaha Cinnabon – this is the present; it is the here and now, the "what comes next?" of 'Felina.' But for everyone else, it’s a whiff of something else, something capable of eliciting an emotional response far stronger than walking past the purveyor of doughy delights in the mall or at an airport. It is the wistful reminder of the past, a potent combination of pleasure and sadness that comes from wanting to experience something tremendous once more. It is a trip down memory lane, one that Gene takes when he gets home, makes himself a strong drink, closes the curtains, and pops in a VHS tape of Saul Goodman's greatest hits. Gene is overcome with emotion, transfixed by the colorful image reflected in his glasses. And one thing is certain: The glory days of Saul Goodman are gone.
The black-and-white intro makes for great fan-service, but it also succeeds in establishing Saul's state of mind, locked in a monochromatic existence and, like the show itself, sheathed in the shadow of what came before. It's not quite the inky blackness of death. It's not entirely the dreary grayness of prison. But it's not that far removed from those options either. So, when the narrative jumps back to 2001, when Saul was still Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer just a few years removed from his days of being "Slippin' Jimmy," it's not just a situation ripe for the storytelling talents of Gilligan, Gould, and many others (like the fantastic Michelle MacLaren); it's the series literally moving itself out from under the shade of its beloved predecessor.
And once Better Call Saul makes that crucial leap backward, the sun does indeed begin to shine. For all its flirtation with indulging in its own pedigree, 'Uno' quickly becomes a surprisingly distinctive premiere, capable of taking Saul Goodman from an essential but ancillary character to the center of his own peculiar universe. It is a familiar universe, made more so by the presence of Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut, whose sole purpose in life seems to be to challenge the parking validation of down-on-his-luck public defender Jimmy McGill. But it's also a universe that's expanding, which 'Uno' does by introducing an ally in Michael McKean as the electromagnetic phobic Chuck McGill, and a potential nemesis in Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), who, in Chuck's "temporary" absence, has taken over the law firm he helped build. There's also Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), whose familiarity and comfort with Jimmy is indicated in a silent exchange and a shared cigarette.
The moment is an intimate one, hinting at the way Better Call Saul plans to dole out its story elements. That is, at its own leisurely pace. Perhaps this is one of the advantages of being attached to a treasured program: the audience is more inclined to give the creators the benefit of the doubt, to let them ease into the story and all of its complexities gradually. And why wouldn't it? After all, it's not like everyone watching doesn't know how it all comes to an end. If anything, the story of how and why Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman is one that absolutely should take its sweet time. And therein lies the one potential disadvantage of the show, one that is greatly assuaged thanks to the charm and confidence with which 'Uno' presents itself, but is still there nonetheless.
This is a prequel, and the drawback to all prequels is that, at a certain point, they all boil down to a lot of narrative math. Basically it's like watching a mathematician repeatedly solve for x. That's not to say the arithmetical exercises required to solve the equation can't be entertaining. If anything, this premiere alone is proof that they can. With the help of twin skateboarding scam artists, Saul's circuitous attempt to secure the business of a crooked county treasurer leads him to the front door of none other than Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz).
That's the kind of variable that doesn't just make future calculations seem far more appealing, it also demonstrates how looking into the past can sometimes reveal many new and interesting things.
Better Call Saul continues Monday night with 'Mijo' @10pm on AMC. Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC