Better Call Saul: It’s all good, man


Nathan Desai

When the final episode of “Breaking Bad” aired in 2013, many called the series one of the greatest of all time. The AMC drama has been compared to some of TV’s classics, including “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” and is often labeled with the prestigious p-word.

Although whether or not the series was infallible is still hotly contested, “Breaking Bad” is without a doubt one of the most popular television series in history.

So when it was announced that one of the series’ most popular characters would be getting a spin-off (No. I’m not talking about Huell, although I do think a series following his life in the safehouse would be thoroughly entertaining), it would seem surprising that there were more critics than supporters of AMC’s decision. Well, maybe it wasn’t as time and time again television spin-offs have proven to be extremely disappointing.

The pilot of “Better Call Saul” aired Feb. 8 at 10 p.m. with its second episode airing the following day at the same time. Though “Breaking Bad” typically aired on Sundays, its spin-off will air on Mondays. Source: AMC

But if the pilot of “Better Call Saul” is any indication, this series  will be anything but underwhelming.

Most spin-offs end up suffering the same unfortunate fate. They stem from an already extremely successful work and find themselves relying too much on the original for it to thrive on its own. (Sounds an awful lot like having kids, am I right? Sorry for that joke, kids. Just trying to appeal to an older audience.) So it’s fair to say that this constant struggle has become a cliche for spin-offs through the years.

However, as any “Breaking Bad” fan will tell you, “Better Call Saul” creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are masters at steering clear of cliches.

Sure, the first ten minutes refer directly to the original series as it shows us a glimpse of what Saul’s life has become after the events of “Breaking Bad.” (They also gave me major cinnamon roll cravings.) The opening scene was reminiscent of the teddy bear scenes from the second season of “Breaking Bad” as the absence of color is used to fulfill the same symbolic purpose in both instances. (I’m trying my best to keep this spoiler-free so just bear with the vagueness if you can.) Of course it’s impossible to tell if the pattern will recur throughout the season like the teddy bear did, but the black-and-white is certainly an intriguing parallel to “Breaking Bad” and Gilligan’s technique in general.

Besides just that opening scene, Gilligan’s influence is evident in the overall style of the show, specifically in regards to the writing and cinematography. The pilot of “Better Call Saul” feels polished, which sharply  contrasts the beginning of “Breaking Bad,” since the original series only developed a sense of direction as it progressed into its later seasons. However, it is readily apparent that its spin-off was able to retain many of its crew members as “Better Call Saul” is comparable to the final season of “Breaking Bad” in terms of quality production-wise.

That being said, there are some stark differences between the two series. The most notable was apparent from the day the series was announced; the spin-off takes itself a lot less seriously than the original. Yes, “Breaking Bad” had its funny moments (Must I remind you of Jesse Pinkman’s answering machine?) and it can be argued that the first few seasons of the show contain elements of black comedy. But down the stretch, “Breaking Bad” hit its prime by adhering to the intense and dramatic elements that its fans adored.

One of the flashes of comic relief in “Breaking Bad” was the character of Saul Goodman and though the pilot of “Better Call Saul” takes us to the days when the sleazy lawyer went by his actual name of James McGill, he’s the same manipulative, witty and goofy character “Breaking Bad” fans grew to love.

To be fair, “Breaking Bad” did have a much lighter tone at the beginning of its run than it did at its end, but “Better Call Saul” does differ in the fact that no one gets sent on a trip to Belize in the pilot episode. And while Saul Goodman is a much more humorous character than Walter White, Gilligan does what he does best by delivering a twist ending at the end of the pilot that tugs at the heartstrings of “Breaking Bad” fans, suggesting that the series is about to take on a much more serious tone.

So while “Better Call Saul” does rightfully deviate from the tone established by “Breaking Bad” it does pay its respects to its origin story. Sandwiched between the colorless opening scene and the shock final scene where we meet another fan favorite character. (Nope. Still not Huell.)

Unfortunately, if I had to name something I disliked about this opening episode, it would deal with the appearance of Mike Ehrmantraut. Even though the events in this scene take place well before the events of the original series — around the time when Jesse was a student in Walt’s chemistry class — Mike looks to be older than he was in his final appearance in “Breaking Bad.” I totally understand that actors age so it isn’t really a mind-boggling concept that it looks like Jonathan Banks has gotten older in the past two years. I do feel that some makeup could have reduced  this problem, but it it is ultimately a minor issue. At this point I’m just nitpicking problems in the same way that Walt nitpicked the potency of his methamphetamine. Banks’ appearance takes almost nothing away from the quality of the episode as a whole and he reprises his grumpy, old and tough character exceptionally.

“Better Call Saul” does contain its fair share of references to “Breaking Bad,” but it isn’t too excessive. Many spin-offs fall into the trap of serving more as a supplement than a complement,but “Better Call Saul” has put itself on the right track with its pilot.

And if the series does somehow find itself in hot water and needs to find a way to disappear, I know of a nice Cinnabon in Omaha that happens to be hiring. Or we can just send it to Belize.