There’s a lot working against “Better Call Saul,” AMC’s new spinoff of “Breaking Bad.” Generally speaking, spinoffs are the parasites of series TV. They can turn an original series into a kind of host organism, the begetter of a chain of little Piggly Wigglys on the schedule, from the latest “CSI” or “NCIS” knockoff to “Joey.” Too often, they’re shows built on corporate and not creative energy.
The thought of possibly tainting the great, near-perfect “Breaking Bad” with a spinoff is a difficult one. So far, no one has dared to borrow DNA from any of TV’s contemporary classics, including “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” and “The Sopranos.” I think I can safely say that we don’t ever want to be watching “Beaucoup Bucco.”
Also working against “Better Call Saul,” which premieres Sunday night at 10, then moves to its regular slot on Monday at 10, is the fact that it’s a prequel. The show is set six years before the events of “Breaking Bad,” as it focuses on how hungry Albuquerque lawyer James M. McGill (Bob Odenkirk) became the man we know as Saul Goodman. How did Jimmy, a desperate guy who takes on public defender cases for $700 a throw, who has a local reputation as “Slippin’ Jimmy” for his lucrative staged accidents, and whose office/apartment is located in the back of a nail salon, evolve into the showy, connected, loophole-loving man who was a consigliere to Walter White?
Since it’s a prequel, we already know that Jimmy will become Saul Goodman — a last name he chose because he thinks clients prefer Jewish lawyers and because the name subliminally suggests “It’s all good, man.” The question isn’t “What will happen to this character?,” as it was on “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos,” and most other shows. It’s “How did he become the man we already know?” We’re aware from the start that Jimmy will ultimately break bad — or more bad, since he’s already something of a sleaze. The emphasis is on the getting there and not the destination, just as it is with origin stories about Norman Bates on “Bates Motel” and Hannibal Lecter on “Hannibal,” not to mention all kinds of superheroes.
Of course a TV show, or a book or a movie or a play, can be rich even when you know the conclusion in advance. Jane Austen’s novels end happily, but the getting there is lovely and wise, just as it is when rewatching TV classics. But still, when the end of a series is a mystery, your imagination is able to explore more possibilities along the way, and that sense of where-is-this-all-heading? can add a layer of excitement to a story. So “Better Call Saul” begins without engendering that kind of wonder.
Despite those disadvantages, “Better Call Saul” is promising. It looks like “Breaking Bad,” with the same mix of blazing Southwest landscapes and fast-food kitsch. It contains nods to “Breaking Bad,” none of which I will spoil here. And it moves like “Breaking Bad,” with the confident, gradual pacing that can erupt from a whisper to a scream. But it has a different story to tell, about a man who is as verbal as Walt was not. And it looks as though co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are going to tell that story with enough humor and moral twistiness to make it fly.
The most valuable thing Gilligan and Gould do in the first episodes is to turn Saul from a relatively flat character primarily used for comic relief on “Breaking Bad” into a fully dimensional guy named Jimmy. With the help of Odenkirk’s enriched performance, we can actually care about this man. He is still the BS artist of all BS artists, an ace spewer of verbiage. But he never gives up once he’s started talking, and he never stops believing in the power of reason — and those qualities become appealing traits. Also, he is a caretaker for his ailing brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a partner at a prestigious law firm who can no longer go into the office. There’s an air of pathos around Jimmy, and the glimmers of a morally grounded man, that make him more sympathetic.
I’m not expecting “Better Call Saul” to rise to the heights of “Breaking Bad,” but I finished the episodes provided for review wanting to see more. It’s less brooding than its progenitor, less emotionally wrenching (at least at first), and its references to the “Breaking Bad” mythology could ultimately become tiresome. But it’s also entertaining and smart and, like its piteous semi-hero, persuasive.