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Better Call Saul Living Up to Its Predecessor

Bob OdenkirkIn a desolate New Mexico desert a desperate man uses all his cunning and intelligence to plead for his life to a ruthless criminal bent on eliminating him in an extremely violent fashion.

For any fans of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, this is a familiar scenario. That show’s protagonist, high school science teacher-turned drug manufacturer Walter White, found himself in that exact situation numerous times over the years. It’s also a scenario being revisited in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul” but this time with White's sleazebag lawyer Saul Goodman at the center of the action.

Television sequels or prequels rarely work. For every “Frasier” there are about 10 “Joey”s. They are an even rarer breed among drama series. It’s extremely unlikely we’re every going to see a “Sopranos” spinoff focused on Junior and Tony’s dad running North Jersey in the 1960s (but I’d watch it) or a “Mad Men” offshoot about Peggy Olsen’s continued rise through the advertising ranks in the 1980s (I’d probably watch that too).

For David Chase, Matthew Weiner or most any other creator of a prestigious drama series, the prospect of expanding or tampering with their finished product is likely both intimidating and extremely challenging. “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan appears up to that challenge and nearly midway through the first season of “Better Call Saul”, which airs at 10 p.m. tonight on AMC, he appears to still have the magic touch.

Instead of tracing the further exploits of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) following the dramatic conclusion of “Breaking Bad,” (I won’t spoil that here), “Better Call Saul” instead winds back the clock several years to 2002, long before he began representing Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.

In this narrative, also set in Albuquerque, Goodman has not yet reached the levels of sleazeball success he enjoyed when he was first introduced on “Breaking Bad” and he is still going by his real name, Jimmy McGill.

When we first meet Jimmy here, he’s working as an underpaid public defender whose office is a boiler room in the back of a Korean massage parlor. He’s a fairly desparate character and hasn’t yet developed into the slick and ethically-deficient individual we meet in the original series. But through four episodes his path in that direction is being laid out.

Just like “Breaking Bad” was about Mr. Chips turning into Scarface, “Better Call Saul appears to set to depict Jimmy/Saul’s descent. After all, his first appearance in “Breaking Bad” is preceded by Jesse telling Walter, “When the going gets tough, you don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”

If Walter White’s descent was compellingly dark and tragic, Jimmy’s is punctuated a lot more by humor. Take the scene laid out the beginning of this piece. After a money-making scheme has gone awry, Jimmy and two dimwitted co-conspirators are dragged out to the desert to be dealt with by a holdover from “Breaking Bad,” psychotic drug dealer Tuco Salamanca.

Just as in “Breaking Bad,” the scene is fraught with tension and suspense, but it’s also, on a pretty dark level, a very funny scene. When Tuco produces a pair of pliers to break one of Jimmy’s fingers, the lawyer implores his adversary to “use your words” and Tuco’s enthusiasm while describing a “Columbian necktie” is so horrifying that it’s also kind of hilarious.

Through the first four episodes, Giligan and his writers are laying the groundwork for the rest of the season and the direction the season seems to be heading doesn’t really start to become clear until the most recent episode, when Jimmy begins to embrace the morally-bankrupt side of himself we all know so well.

There are also of course other characters that need more time to be fleshed out. McGill’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is a partner at a high-powered law firm who is now out of work while he suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, spending his days alone in his darkened home. There is also Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a lawyer who appears to have some sort of history with Jimmy.

And while he’s only been briefly integrated into the narrative, we’ve had several appearances from Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Saul’s longtime “fixer” on “Breaking Bad”, but here working as a parking lot attendant at the Albuquerque courthouse.

There’s certainly plenty of time for “Better Call Saul” to be fleshed out. It was renewed for a second season before the first even premiered and whether or not past precedent is any indication, “Breaking Bad” was the rare television series that improved as it went along, where the first season is the weakest and the fifth is arguably the finest final season of a series ever. If “Better Call Saul” follows a similar path, this could be one of the top shows for the next several years.
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