Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Better Call Saul

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Better Call Saul seemed like a bad, bad idea.  TV spinoffs and prequels have a gigantic precedent of being disasters that you're better off avoiding.  That's not to say that it's impossible for one to be good, but for every Angel, there are about 100 Joeys.  It also just seemed like an unnecessary idea.  Breaking Bad was an excellent show -- one of my favorites of all time -- but after five seasons, I didn't need to be in that world anymore.  I was especially skeptical of the Better Call Saul's ability to sustain a character like Saul, who was a fun bit player on Breaking Bad, but didn't feel layered enough to be anything more than that.  Ultimately, this show felt like a way for AMC to continue cashing in on the 10 million people who tuned in to the Breaking Bad finale.

There shouldn't have been too much concern, because at the end of the day, the show is in good hands.  Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan co-wrote the pilot with high-level Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren directed the second episode, and multiple Breaking Bad writers round out the rest of the show's staff.  Even smaller aspects, like the editing and the score, are done by the same people who did it on Breaking Bad (Kelley Dixon and Dave Porter, respectively).  And you can tell from the cold open of the Better Call Saul pilot that it's just back to business for the crew.  It's too good to spoil, but it stands up there with the best Breaking Bad had to offer, and that show was known for its iconic and artistic cold opens.

It's not just the beginning of the episode either -- the whole pilot immediately reminds you of the Gilligan qualities that you missed so much.  Better Call Saul has got style to burn.  Vince Gilligan directs the first episode excellently, settling us into the drudgery of Jimmy McGill's (Bob Odenkirk) sad little life.  Indoor locations are shot with wide, oblong angles to really sell their drabness.  It's clear that Jimmy is imprisoned by his life's mundanity and mediocrity.  And it's just nice to be reintroduced to the world of Albuquerque that we loved so much in Breaking Bad, that bright, dry suburban malaise.

But it also does enough to distinguish itself from its sequel.  As I mentioned before, I was skeptical of the show's ability to promote Saul to a leading role, but Bob Odenkirk, with the help of Gilligan and Gould's writing, is able to unearth Saul's soul in a way previously unimaginable.  Jimmy McGill is a different man than Saul Goodman, not just in name but in sensibility.  Better Call Saul, at least so far, also feels more languid and deliberate than Breaking Bad.  Even at its slowest, the latter always had a ticking clock danger buried underneath the surface.  Saul doesn't have that, it just ambles by with its wry charm.  There's not even a very clear arc yet, but the individual moments are so entertaining that it's not hard to sink into the show's laconic vibes.

Still, there's an inevitable case of prequel-itis that this suffers from at times.  Jonathan Banks pops up a few times in the pilot, reprising his role as Mike, and feels extremely unnecessary to what's happening.  Surely, he'll tie into the story more as it moves along, but right now it feels like a cheap nod, their way of saying "hey look, another guy from Breaking Bad!"  An additional from Breaking Bad pops up at the very end of the pilot, and though he plays a bigger part than Mike, it still feels a little too cute.  All of the fanservice is easier to swallow because Gilligan and company have some terrific original creations too, most notably Saul's brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who seems to suffer from some strange aversion to electromagnetic waves.  McKean has been a wonderful character actor for decades -- including his recurring role on The X-Files, the show where Vince Gilligan cut his teeth -- and he's fantastic here as well.

AMC opted for a two-night premiere, airing the pilot Sunday after The Walking Dead in order to generate bigger lead-in numbers, and then showing the second episode on Monday night in its regular timeslot.  This process benefited the show not just because the first episode ends in a way that'll make any fan salivate for the next episode, but also because this second episode does an even better job of assuaging the fears one might have had going into this series.  "Mijo" is where the themes of Better Call Saul really start to take shape.  Where Breaking Bad was about a good man who slowly traded away his humanity for money and power, Saul is about a man who has done bad things in the past (as evidenced by his Slippin' Jimmy story) but is desperately trying to do the right thing.  I honestly wasn't expecting how emotional I got at certain points of "Mijo."  That's not to say that Breaking Bad was a cold show, but the pathos comes from a softer and ultimately different place on this one.

So after two episodes, I've gone from highly skeptical to fully onboard.  "Uno" and "Mijo" didn't light the world on fire, but they reassure any doubters that this is a team of people who know how to construct television.  Is Better Call Saul necessary?  No.  But it's nice to have it anyway.

Pilot grade: B
Second episode grade: B+

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