Friday, February 27, 2015

First Impressions: Better Call Saul

Whilst I was late to the Breaking Bad party, its no secret that I quickly became a huge fan. We tore through the whole series through the course of 2014, relishing every dark turn, and flash of sardonic humour, and although it finishes near perfectly, I still missed it as soon as it was gone. That said, I wasn't too sure I wanted a spin off or sequel, because an awful lot of it's more interesting characters were dead. And when you look at the survivors, any sort of follow negates the resolution that they get - you can't ride off into the sunset effectively if next week you're back doing the same old crap. And spin-offs generally are a roll of the dice; for ever Frasier there is a Joey, as they say. But then again, if you've got an idea, and a character, then maybe it can stand alone against the odds, right? Which brings us to Better Call Saul, a prequel of sorts, but very quickly it's own thing. 

Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman is one of those great supporting characters that any successful show needs to have. In Breaking Bad he's a successful, shifty lawyer with a rat-like survival instinct and contacts everywhere. He's also a bright, funny presence in a show full of menacing performances, constantly harried and threatened, but also sharp, useful, and surprisingly competent. But he's very much a character of whom we know very little - like most of Breaking Bad's cast he exists only the shadow of Walter White, and there is not episode that takes the time to let us understand him, or show any life for him outside of that. In a lot of ways, that makes him perfect spin-off fodder. 

Better Call Saul opens with a haunting black-and-white sequence showing Saul's life after he makes that call, and gets in that car, towards the end of Breaking Bad. He's clearly not living the high life on the proceeds of crime, thats for sure. It also serves as a reminder of the sort of show we're going to be watching - visually arresting, carefully paced character drama that draws you in and then ratchets up the tension to high levels. There is a promise that this will be funnier, played out over the first three episodes at least, which befits the difference between Saul and Walter. 

So what, then, is Better Call Saul about? Well, we quickly drop back several years to meet Jimmy McGill, fledgling lawyer, who doesn't have an office or a minder or an excitingly criminal clientele. Jimmy is down on his luck, working Public Defender cases, but there is already the whiff of the huckster about him, the showman, as he strides around court shamelessly doing what it takes to get the best result for whichever client comes his way that morning. Straight away, we're behind the facade too; watching him warm up in front of the mirror, slump in his run down back-office and battle the guy who watches the barrier to the car park. Who is Mike Ehrmantraut. 


So in the early running we've not seen too much of the people in Saul/Jimmy's life and it takes until the third for Mike to be more than a cameo. There is a brother, formerly a high-flying lawyer now suffering from a possibly-real, possibly-delusional allergy to electromagnestism. There are also a few characters from his brothers law firm, who seems to be recurring, although as yet feel ill-defined. There is an early connection to the criminal underworld that come to define him - but as yet Jimmy is a sort of honest man, wanting to build a practice, wanting to be on the straight and narrow. If Walter  White is a man falling from Grace to Damnation, Jimmy is a man who lives in Purgatory. 

After three episodes I'm totally sold on Better Call Saul. It has a lot of it's predecessors strengths, especially in it's fantastic visuals, but it's also a very different sort of story, building on very different themes. It's not trying to compete, I feel, it's trying to be it's own thing in it's own voice. At the moment its very much just clearing it's throat, and I can't wait for it to start really singing,.