Throughout television history, there have been characters so memorable, so lovable and so fascinating that they are given a chance to shine with a show of their very own. Sometimes, a spin-off can become as iconic as the programs that inspired it such as “Cheers” and “Frasier,” “Happy Days” and “Mork & Mindy,” “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.” However, spin-offs can prove to be a disastrous experiment and fizzle out in the immense shadow of the original show like “Friends” and “Joey;” “The X-Files” and “The Lone Gunmen;” and “M.A.S.H.” and “AfterMASH.”
The newest product of the spin-off conveyor belt, “Better Call Saul,” was fashioned from “Breaking Bad,” the addictive AMC drama that left a giant void in our hearts when it ended in the fall of 2013. “Bad” fans were both expectant and somewhat hesitant when it was announced that a follow-up show would focus on Walter White’s sleazy ambulance-chasing lawyer Saul Goodman. Portrayed by comedian Bob Odenkirk (“Mr. Show with Bob and David”), Saul could always be counted on for some comedic relief among the darker elements of a show..
As it turns out, there was no need for the worry because “Better Call Saul” (which had its season one finale April 6) is a spin-off that really works, standing apart from its original source and finding its own voice after just 10 episodes. Beautifully shot and cleverly written like its predecessor, “Better Call Saul” can be seen as one big Easter egg hunt for “Breaking Bad” references. Tuco, Belize, Kevin Costner and a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska, are just a few familiar things that’ll tickle your nostalgia bone.
Created by “Bad” auteurs Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, “Saul” takes place six years before the events of “Breaking Bad” when Saul Goodman goes by his legal name, James “Jimmy” McGill and works as a public defender trying to carve a place for himself in the legal world. Trying to leave the shadow of his more successful lawyer brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), Jimmy yearns to have actual clients and leave his cramped office in the back of an Asian nail salon.
In classic “Breaking Bad” fashion, the show has plenty of flashbacks and montages, giving us a glimpse into the past of James M. McGill. We learn that he had a stint as a former con man known as “Slippin’ Jimmy” and is a graduate from the online University of American Samoa (Go Land Crabs!). Such life achievements make him an interesting attorney to say the least, an adjective that extends to his clients, which include the elderly, a man hoping to secede from the United States and an embezzling county treasurer.
While Odenkirk’s character is known for his wisecracking, he now carries the title of main protagonist and the heavy baggage that comes along with it. The funny man brings a surprising amount of emotional depth to a show that the actor himself has described as “85 percent drama, 15 percent comedy.” It’s absolutely true as our characters may be dealing with a talking toilet one minute and a grave betrayal the next.
Jimmy is a veritable fast-talking goodie bag of pop culture references (from “Network” to “Matlock” and everything in between), a veritable underdog in the dog-eat-dog world of the law. He sometimes finds it easier to navigate this world when he uses his old “Slippin’ Jimmy” ways to make a buck. Sometimes it gets him into trouble and other times it’s pure genius. However, it is in the season finale where we see the early formation of Saul Goodman, when Jimmy realizes the law is what you make of it. Nevertheless, he’s charming in a car salesman-y sort of way, especially when compared to Chuck’s uptight partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) whom Jimmy accuses of having a not-so-kosher relationship with swine.
While “Better Call Saul” is an origin story of how James went from Irish swindler to struggling attorney, it’s also about the other people in Jimmy’s life and other stories that run parallel to his. For instance, we meet a diverse cast of lovable characters, old and new. Alongside trying to build his own practice, Jimmy needs to take care of Chuck who suffers from sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation.
He also explores his friendship with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), which has a “will they, won’t they get together” aspect to it. Who knew that a blood-sucking lawyer actually had a beating heart behind the fancy suits and comb over? Jonathan Banks makes a triumphant return as Mike Ehrmantraut, a parking lot attendant who begins to show the signs of Gus Fring’s fearless “fixer” who also happens to be a senior citizen. The episode dedicated to his past is super intense and arguably the season’s finest hour. Despite the genuine hilarity, it’s the human moments that really make the show.
Gilligan and Gould didn’t just do this show to make more money or stay relevant after the success of “Breaking Bad.” They actually found a story worth telling that carries on the legacy of the previous show without tarnishing its reputation. It’s no wonder a second season was ordered before the first one even began. I’m now itching to see what’s in store for Albuquerque’s future crooked lawyer. Will he continue to specialize in elder law? Will he and Chuck reconcile their differences? Will Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul be making cameos in later seasons? Will I ever get “Smoke on the Water” out of my head? In the words of Jesse Pinkman, “We’ll just have to wait and see…b-tch!”