Thursday, February 26, 2015

Better Call Saul - a spin-off done right


Breaking Bad’s prequel/sequel meets the high expectations of the original’s fans

Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, and Michael McKean
Created by: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould

 A heady mix of anticipation and apprehension bubbles in the recesses of your mind when you know that someone is in the process of making a prequel or sequel to a TV show you hold dear. Breaking Bad fans know exactly what that feels like. The wrap-up of the drama in 2013 left a huge Walter White-shaped hole in our lives, a void that series creator Vince Gilligan promised to fill with a Saul Goodman spin-off. But would the new show be any good? Or would it just tarnish the perfection of one of the best television series of all time?

That’s what we’ve been wondering for one and a half years. But now the wait is finally over, we are rather pleased to report that the first few episodes of the new series were quite terrific.

The look and feel of the setting remain true to the original show as the spin-off takes us back to the familiar terrain of New Mexico for a new set of adventures. This time round, the protagonist is Walter White’s slick, seedy lawyer Saul Goodman (portrayed by the delightful Bob Odenkirk). We first met him in the second season of Breaking Bad; despite the fact that we grew to love him over the course of the series, we didn’t really get to know much about him. And that's what the new show plans to rectify.

Before he crossed paths with Heisenberg, Saul was a struggling, small-time lawyer still going by his real name James “Jimmy” McGill. The show gradually pieces together his back story, telling us about his relationship with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), and how he met his future henchman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, reprising the role) in a very amusing meet cute that is sure to please fans. Meanwhile, his quest to land what could be a lucrative case goes awry; after a run in with a familiar face, things start to get more and more complicated. But, to borrow a line from Weird Al, that’s just the way things go in Albuquerque!

Like its predecessor, the comedy drama is smart, affecting, darkly funny, and very well crafted. The direction remains impeccable, as does the remarkable camera work and thorough attention to detail. Even the most mundane things unfold in impressively creative ways. The acting by everyone, old and new, is top notch. Odenkirk and Banks remain predictably reliable, and McKean is a solid addition to the cast.

The series does benefit from the fact that we care about its protagonist, and it definitely helps that we are already invested in Saul and Mike’s stories. Those who haven’t seen Breaking Bad won’t be as readily excited about the mere presence of these characters and might struggle with the show’s pacing, a gripe that is likely to diminish as the plot becomes more intricate over the course of the season and things speed up.

Of course it remains to be seen how Better Call Saul develops, but what is obvious from the very first scene is the level of thought and care that has gone into this show. This isn’t a half-baked attempt at milking an old cash cow, nor is it your average legal drama. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have managed to produce exactly what they set out to do. The new project upholds its predecessor’s legacy and is a worthy companion to the former drama. For now, its strong start suggests that it will be interesting to discover how James McGill became Saul Goodman (and the promise of seeing a few more familiar faces is certainly also exciting).

This is a well-written, quirky outing fuelled by thoroughly entertaining storytelling, and it’s definitely good to be back in Albuquerque.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 26th February, 2015 *

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