Better Call Saul: Living up to the hype?

The creator of Breaking Bad launched a risky spin-off series last month. Is it hitting the dizzy heights of its award-winning predecessor?

The end of Breaking Bad just over 18 months ago signalled a sad but triumphant moment for television.

The show – widely acclaimed for its impeccable storylines, incredible characters and cinematic quality – led the recent shift in quality drama from films to the small screen. Fans expressed their joy when Breaking Bad ended on a high, and it’s arguable that the programme never suffered a weak season.

When AMC announced that the show would be concluding its run, it naturally generated a reaction of disappointment on a rather large scale. However, there was light at the end of the tunnel, as in late 2013 news broke that a spin-off, Better Call Saul, was in the works. Many rejoiced that the world of Breaking Bad would continue, but others were very apprehensive.

American TV spin-offs have a slightly negative reputation, and many networks steer clear of them. In the past, successful shows have spawned by-products in an attempt to build upon their fortune – it’s a great opportunity to launch another critical darling while maintaining a huge fanbase and the riches that brings. And it has sometimes worked, which is why spin-offs are never quickly dismissed.

Cheers, one of the most celebrated US sitcoms of the 80s, gave birth to Frasier, which revolved around the popular character of Dr. Frasier Crane, a psychiatrist perpetually irritated by his patients. It cemented back-to-back hits for NBC, with high ratings and critical acclaim keeping Frasier on air for a full ten seasons.

The network identified a chance to repeat this achievement with another of its hits, Friends, which inherited the mantle from Seinfeld and Cheers as the most popular show of its time. Joey was the outcome, but it was a weak and mundane comedy that failed to recreate the magic of its predecessor.

All this begs the question: will Better Call Saul follow in the footsteps of Frasier or Joey? At this stage it is difficult to wholly make a judgment. Only a handful of episodes have been released thus far, but even this brief glimpse into the world of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is enough to say that we might just have another Frasier on our hands. Die-hard fans of Breaking Bad need not fret.

Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad. It’s set in the present day but depicted in black and white, which emphasises the dull and gloomy tone surrounding our main character, Saul, who is despondently plugging away at his newfound job in a Cinnabon and reminiscing about his former law career.

The first episode provides an insight into who Saul Goodman – or Jimmy McGill, as he’s also known – really is, essentially painting him as a downbeat ex-attorney who has found a new respect for the law later in his life. The focus on developing Goodman’s character allows us to quickly understand his vast environment. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but crave for the special thrill of Breaking Bad, which I remember so fondly.

This sense of disappointment was gone in a heartbeat once the episode was over, primarily because of how it ended; the audience was reunited with Tuco Salamanca, an old face who brought discomfort and pure insanity to Breaking Bad. My excitement was undiminished in the second episode, when Goodman finds himself stranded in the scorching desert of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s a location so recognisable from the experiences of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

The audience naturally expects Better Call Saul to match the quality of Breaking Bad, but it’s extremely cruel to compare the fledgling show to what is now considered one of the greatest TV series of all time. It needs time and patience before we can scrutinise it fairly. The only obstacle I can foresee is a lack suspense in the show, because viewers who watched Breaking Bad already know where Saul Goodman’s story is heading. It will be interesting to see how the writers deal with this problem in future episodes.

It’s crucial to note that similarities undoubtedly exist between Saul Goodman and his former client, Walter White, if one analyses both characters in detail. White truly developed into his evil alter ego, Heisenberg, while Goodman starts as Jimmy McGill, a jittery and careful lawyer who gradually evolves into a contrasting persona, confident and dishonest. Both become opportunistic as a result of their circumstances, but their increasing involvement in their chosen vices is down to greed rather than necessity.

The writing and style of Better Call Saul have maintained a high quality as we approach the midway point of season one, with a certain elegance carried through from Breaking Bad – the series has been favourably compared to the work of the Coen brothers. Bob Odenkirk has spearheaded the show superbly, conveying a comic charm that elicits sympathy from the audience. Goodman’s crafty yet remarkably inventive methods of boosting his profile and furthering his career are a joy to watch, and that is predominantly down to Odenkirk’s warm performance.

Through Saul Goodman, series creator Vince Gilligan depicts a comfortless message about the lengths people go to in order to achieve their ambitions, but to detail this in such a humorous manner takes real ingenuity.

Better Call Saul has swiftly developed into one of the best shows on TV and, in the safe hands of Gilligan, one would bet on it becoming a smash hit.

Discussion feed
  • great article and I certainly agree. I went into Better Call Saul with low expectations, but so far I have been pleasantly surprised by the shows dedication to Breaking Bad's tone, yet able to form it's own identity.
  • I watch a few shows on a weekly basis and Better Call Saul is now the one I most look forward to even though I think a couple of the others are better. I never thought I'd say that about a Netflix show.

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