Better Call Saul is a slightly gentler prequel to Breaking Bad; it evokes a more laid-back, boozy sort of crime story, epitomized on the page by Carl Hiaasen, George V. Higgins, and Elmore Leonard and on TV by the likes of The Rockford Files and FX’s late lamented Terriers. Written and overseen by Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan and set many years before Walter White’s cancer diagnosis, it has a sad-sack charm. The cast of thieves, hustlers, drug dealers, and other margin dwellers features several repeat players from Gilligan’s acclaimed predecessor; they include the title character, known as Jimmy McGill here and still played by Bob Odenkirk, and Mike Ehrmantraut, who’s introduced working the booth at the county courthouse’s parking lot. (He’s a stickler for validation.)
The show wastes no time establishing parallels between Walter White’s journey and Jimmy’s. If Breaking Bad was about Mr. Chips turning into Scarface, as Gilligan liked to say, then this show is about a hapless public defender morphing into, well, Saul Goodman: criminal lawyer, emphasis on “criminal.” The opening episodes have certain (one assumes deliberate) structural similarities to Breaking Bad’s debut season (no major spoilers here, don’t worry). In fact, the series seems so much an airier mirror of Breaking Bad’s testosterone-poisoned heaviness that I wouldn’t be surprised if Jimmy embraced the alias “Saul Goodman” in the sixth episode of season one, the same spot in Breaking Bad where Walter shaved his head.
There’s also a Whitean sense of a man stumbling upon his latent potential for greatness in the most regrettable way and becoming, as another character puts it, “a life coach for psychotics.” Where Walter is a genius of chemistry, Jimmy is a genius of bullshit: the Bruce Lee of dissembling. In this crime drama, Jimmy’s improvised soliloquies occupy the place of narrative honor where awesome displays of physical prowess would go in action series, and Odenkirk delivers them with immense intelligence. He lets us sense the hero’s revulsion, terror, and self-lacerating shame even as he keeps these feelings hidden from whomever he’s trying to bamboozle. The scripts keep pushing him into very deep holes that he escapes by riding a bubble of self-created hot air. “Boy,” one character says, seeing through Jimmy’s deception while admiring his nerve, “you gotta mouth on you!” Sometimes he vocalizes thoughts that other liars might keep hidden, which releases collective tension and makes it seem like Jimmy has nothing to hide even when he does. “I’m not sure if this is a situation where I should or should not look you in the eye,” he tells a man who’s willing and able to murder him. (“It’s called a confidence game,” says the grifter hero of David Mamet’s House of Games. “Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”)
Better Call Saul contains a fair bit of Breaking Bad–style viciousness, but it’s spaced by long stretches that are more about capers and conversations and gesture-sketch portraits of characters, both familiar and new. The details of Jimmy’s life are hilariously pathetic, so much so that you can’t help feeling for him: His office is practically a closet, and he drives a rattletrap car that seems to be coughing when it idles. We meet Jimmy’s brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a partner at a white-shoe law firm who had a probably psychosomatic breakdown, and lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), who has a sorta thing with Jimmy that sometimes gets in the way of her own things. Supporting players drift in and out of the story, including a couple of wildly overconfident scam-artist skate punks who are vaguely reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s Skinny Pete and Badger, and another significant BB character that I was surprised to be happy to see again: Jonathan Banks, who became a national treasure playing Mike, is reincarnated here, and he’s as grumpy as ever; with his long face, basset-hound eyes, and perpetual glare of exhausted disdain, he’s an editorial cartoon of himself. (He can make a person’s name sound like an infectious disease.) When Mike finally stops torturing Jimmy over parking validation and joins forces with him, the show’s energy level kicks up a notch. The blabbering shyster and the lethal grump are a comedy team for the ages.
Breaking Bad’s deep bench of screenwriters and filmmakers has been partially reconstituted here, with Arthur Albert (ER, The Blacklist) overseeing the show’s cinematography and Dave Porter returning to contribute a spare and often gentle score. The result is a conventional drama lit, shot, and edited with maximum cinematic oomph, in ways that tease out or add meanings that might not have been carried by dialogue and performance alone. Gilligan directed the February 8 pilot, while Michelle MacLaren helmed the follow-up, which airs the following evening in the show’s regular time slot. The look verges on film noir in color, with vast swaths of the frame swallowed in gloom and Jimmy and his cohorts illuminated by shafts, cones, or panels of light. In wide shots of large, dimly lit rooms, the characters might as well be shipwreck survivors adrift in a black sea. There’s something poignant about the look of this show: It syncs up with the sight of so many characters struggling to hold on to whatever standards they have left in a world that gives people many reasons to lie but only one to tell the truth. Breaking Bad presented all sorts of institutions, including medicine, criminal justice, and public education, as neglected, outdated, or defective machines that could be easily gamed by desperate or diabolical people. Better Call Saul seems poised to do the same for the American legal system.
A brilliant montage near the end of the second episode lays out Better Call Saul’s decrepit moral architecture: Jimmy, always the movie buff, reenacts the start-of-the-day routine from Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, delivering the choreographer hero’s catchphrase “It’s showtime, folks!” into a men’s-room mirror, negotiating with an unyielding prosecutor, and battling Mike over the parking issue. Fosse’s amphetamines and Alka-Seltzer are replaced here by vending-machine coffee spat into sad paper cups. The image that ends this montage is an early candidate for Shot of the Year: a frame-within-a-frame of Jimmy walking away from us down a courthouse hallway, as seen from inside the coffee machine, an overturned, coffee-splattered cup partially blocking our view. The machine is broken.
*This article appears in the February 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.