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AMC’s BETTER CALL SAUL Hits the Ground Running

Greetings and salutations, fellow Fridge Nukers! Bradfield here, reporting from the Los Pollos Hermanos drive-thru in beautiful, scenic downtown Albuquerque.

Call Me “Jimmy”

It has been about a year and a half since science teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White met his final fate, and the rest of the cast of perennial hit factory AMC‘s Breaking Bad said their final goodbyes to their legions of fans. Well, not the entire cast. Shortly before the ratings juggernaut wrapped its last episode, it was announced that fast-talking, ethically dubious attorney Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) would be the main character of  a BB spinoff titled Better Call Saul. If last night’s premiere is any indication — and the fact that AMC ordered two additional seasons after seeing a rough cut of the pilot — the future looks bright for the attorney formerly known as James McGill.

Believe it or not, Mike (Johnathan Banks) and Saul (Bob Odenkirk) do not begin the show as “wacky best pals.”

Although the pre-credits scene picks up, ostensibly, after the events in Breaking Bad, BCS takes place approximately six years before Walter and Skyler White crossed Saul Goodman’s doorstep. And though not really a major plot point at the moment, for a reason that has yet to be revealed, Saul Goodman did not start this life as Saul Goodman, but rather the aforementioned Mr. McGill.

Although comedians Lavell Crawford and Bill Burr are, to date, not scheduled to reprise their roles as Saul’s enforcers, Huell and Kuby, perhaps surprisingly, Johnathan Banks returns as Mike Ehrmantraut, better known to BB fans as Gus Fring’s “cleaner.” Rounding out the regular cast is veteran character actor/comedian and occasional lead vocalist of Spinal Tap, the great Michael McKean as Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s brother. However, rather than playing second banana to Saul’s antics, McKean plays a subdued and serious counter to everybody’s favorite “scumbag” attorney.

The Dreaded “S” Word

“Spinoff,” is not generally a word associated with quality television – after all, for every Frasier, there are a dozen Joey‘s. Then again, until the revolution in cable programming, “primetime television” wasn’t necessarily associated with quality entertainment. Just as AMC helped reinvent people’s ideas about what primetime television could be, they are likely to change a mind or two about what a spinoff can be. The general trend is to do “the continuing adventures of X.” The two keys to the Saul Goodman character in the original show are that, first and foremost, Bob Odenkirk — apparently doing an impression of mega producer, Robert Evans — owned pretty much every scene he was in. One could argue that, even if he was in half the episode, it just never felt like there was enough Saul. Second, it’s a “prequel.” Even though his backstory was never explored in much detail, you knew there was one, and it was bound to be good. For example, we know that Saul has several ex-wives, but at present, Jimmy is single.

Comedy legend Michael McKean (right) plays it straight as Saul/Jimmy’s brother, Chuck

The other way BCS distinguishes itself from Breaking Bad is in its tone. At least so far. As flawed as Walter White was, by literary definition, a “hero.” He did the wrong things for the right reasons. Taking the spotlight now, Saul/Jimmy becomes a classic anti-hero in the cable tradition. Sure, he does the wrong things for the wrong reasons – it’s just bloody entertaining to watch. One episode in, it’s hard to tell how deeply the show will venture into dramatic territory. After all, Breaking Bad began with the image of a desperate Bryan Cranston explaining to a video camera how and why he chose to manufacture meth – in his tighty-whities.

Early ratings appear to be gangbusters, as expected – and probably not because the pilot premiered after last night’s mid-season premiere of The Walking Dead. [Though it most likely didn’t hurt.] If you missed the premiere, the pilot episode of Better Call Saul will re-air tonight at 9pm, just before a bonus, second episode at the show’s regularly scheduled time of 10pm.