TV review: BETTER CALL SAUL

February 18, 2015

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You may have heard the phrase ‘Same same but different’ in your travels – basically, it means that what you’re being offered bears some similarity to something you know but it’s not exactly the real thing.

Now, normally this phrase applies to items like knockoff Rolexes, and it’s not necessarily an indication of quality merchandise.

But it struck me as perhaps the best way to describe Better Call Saul, the new drama series focusing on Saul Goodman, the somewhat shady lawyer who helped Breaking Bad’s Walter White navigate his way through the criminal underworld.

The spirit of Breaking Bad, one of the smartest, toughest and most rewarding TV series of the last decade, is evident in Better Call Saul. In terms of its tone and its style, they’re definitely kin.

However, while Saul shares many traits with Bad, especially in how the frustrations of a life of quiet desperation to edge even a well-meaning person towards the dark side, this new series is very much its own thing as well.

The character of Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk, was very much comic relief in the Breaking Bad universe, the lawyer’s tacky taste and dubious methods often providing a welcome respite for the escalating grimness and tension of Walter White’s descent into corruption.

And I must admit, when I first heard about plans for a prequel series that would focus on Saul’s early years, prior to his involvement with Walter, I was sceptical. I enjoyed Odenkirk’s work but imagined that a show revolving solely around him would be glib and insubstantial.

I was wrong.

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Based on the first couple of episodes I’ve seen, this is some top-shelf television right here – beautifully made, eloquently written, tremendously performed, piercingly sad, wonderfully funny, thoroughly gripping.

And holding it all together is Odenkirk, who does a better job than I could ever have hoped for. That sounds patronising, I know, but I found myself stunned by the way the actor gracefully shifts between tones, playing scenes with a broad, clownish theatricality one moment, a devastating and heartbreaking subtlety the next.

Just as playing Walter White gave Bryan Cranston the opportunity to demonstrate range and skill hitherto unseen by audiences, Better Call Saul provides Odenkirk with a magnificent showcase for his abilities. This is his moment, and he makes the absolute most of it.

Set a decade or so before his Breaking Bad introduction, Better Call Saul sees Odenkirk’s character in his previous life as Jimmy McGill, a small-time lawyer eking out a meagre existence as a public defender when he’s not desperately trying to snare a better class of clientele.

When that fails, well, Jimmy’s not above pulling a scam or two. But when a scheme involving a staged traffic accident goes south, he finds himself entangled with the wrong crowd.

And while Jimmy talks his way out of a shallow grave in the New Mexico desert, his new acquaintances recognise that his legal expertise and connections could come in handy.

That’s the beginning of Jimmy’s journey, which will eventually see him become Saul Goodman, morally-challenged middleman for the criminal element. Watching him blunder his way into trouble and bluster his way out is going to be a hell of a good ride.

One other thing: Odenkirk has a very distinctive voice, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard the Pratt Promises (from the classic sketch-comedy series Mr Show) when Jimmy pulled out the old video of his Saul Goodman TV spots in Better Call Saul‘s first episode.