Feb 10, 2015

    Shady lawyer is hero of Breaking Bad prequel

    NOBODY wanted it to end, so the creators of Breaking Bad came up with a new beginning. Better Call Saul, which has a two-part premiere on AMC on Sunday and Monday nights, revolves around Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shady lawyer of Walter White, the hero of Breaking Bad, and is set roughly six years before the two meet.

    It is common to dread a spinoff; some succeed, but plenty disappoint. There is absolutely no need to worry about this prequel to the Breaking Bad canon. Better Call Saul traces in loving, if corrosive, detail how Jimmy McGill, a debt-ridden, ambulance-chasing loser, changed his name to Saul Goodman and became a drug-lord consigliere.

    Better Call Saul is better than good: It is delightful - in a brutal, darkly comic way, of course.

    Saul was not a full co-conspirator, but he was critical to the criminal enterprise of Breaking Bad, a reasonably loyal and glib legal adviser with louche connections, a disarming Midwestern accent and hilariously shameless local television ads with the punchy tagline "Better call Saul".

    Saul was always a welcome walk-on, a secondary character who added a funny, piquant strain to the mix.

    There is plenty of material to work with on Better Call Saul, thanks to Odenkirk's elasticity as an actor and also the inexhaustible ingenuity of Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, and Peter Gould, one of that show's lead writers and producers.

    Early on in Breaking Bad, Saul told Walter that he had taken on a Jewish name for his legal practice, figuring that his clientele would prefer to be represented by what he called, a "member of the tribe". It's more complicated than that.

    The series opens with an arresting black-and-white prologue, a glimpse of Saul after Walter's death. In the turmoil at the end of Breaking Bad, Saul disappeared into obscurity somewhere else under a new identity, a DIY witness self-protection programme.

    That first sequence of the new show is shot in glossy 1930s style, and the music is wickedly apt: The Ink Spots singing Address Unknown. On the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, he said, "If I'm lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha." And that is indeed where he is, not on the Riviera or in a glamorous Caribbean tax haven.

    Saul drinks alone and watches an old VCR tape from his previous life: a collection of grandiose "Better call Saul" ads. That dip into nostalgia adds colour to the series - and sweeps the action back to Saul's more colourful past.

    Six years earlier, he was using his real name, Jimmy, and scuttling around the Albuquerque courthouse trying to drum up clients and forced to take low-paying public defender cases to pay his bills. Jimmy has cunning and bravado, but he does not really have a law practice.

    Showing the first two episodes on consecutive nights is helpful. Like Breaking Bad in its earliest episodes, Better Call Saul takes its time, teasing the viewer with enigmatic shots and oblique conversations. There is an odd tilt to characters and situations - much like the show's cinematography.

    The camera retains the restless, quirky spirit of Breaking Bad; there is one shot of Jimmy placing his keys, phone and wristwatch in a mailbox that is filmed from inside the mailbox; the point of view is that of a letter.

    Better Call Saul really gets going in the second episode, and best of all, this is a series that can stand on its own. Fans of Walter White have a leg up on the outcome, but there is so much to this offshoot that viewers who have never seen Breaking Bad would not feel left out.