First, if you have not watched Breaking Bad—and really, what are you waiting for?—get yourself to Netflix or On Demand or whatever and start binge-watching now.
Only after you’ve seen the entire five seasons of Walter White going from high school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin should you read this column, or, more importantly, watch the new AMC series Better Call Saul.
Better Call Saul isn’t a sequel to Breaking Bad but a prequel, taking place six years before Saul Goodman signed on to represent Albuquerque’s most notorious criminal.
Walter White and Jesse Pinkerman are nowhere near the new series; Jesse would still have been in high school, wondering, no doubt, how that lame chemistry class taught by Mr. White would ever be useful.
Six years before, Saul Goodman didn’t exist yet. Instead, the lawyer who would be known as Saul Goodman was still called by his birth name, Jimmy McGill, a small-time attorney with a bleak future and almost no clients.
Breaking Bad was about how a man loses his soul as he builds a drug empire. Better Call Saul shows a man at odds with the intersection of morals and ambition.
At the end of Breaking Bad—spoiler alert—Saul Goodman predicted that “the best-case scenario” for his tenuous future would be as manager at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska.
And in a black-and-white prologue, that is exactly what Saul is doing—rolling out the dough, putting out the Cinnabon sign in the mall, sweeping up, and constantly looking over his shoulder, worried that somehow, someday, the criminals from Arizona will find him.
At night, Saul drinks alone in his apartment and, for fun, watches the cheesy television commercials he made for his law practice back in the day.
The series then begins to show the maturation of Jimmy McGill, whose practice is so low-rent that his office is in the back of a nail salon, next to the utility room. It’s also where he sleeps.
While the first episode of Better Call Saul sets up the premise, it is the second episode that kicks into high gear and shows that Jimmy McGill really was a good lawyer.
No, make that an excellent lawyer. His negotiation on behalf of two “clients” during a tense standoff in that second episode is sheer brilliance.
Jimmy also has a brother, Chuck, who is forced to leave his job at his high-powered law firm, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, due to the sudden onset of what Chuck describes as electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
No one respects Jimmy, not the woman who owns the nail salon and not even his brother for whom he is the only lifeline to the outside world. Jimmy, of course, hasn’t quite learned to respect himself.
Is Better Call Saul as brilliant as Breaking Bad?
Breaking Bad set a standard that comes just under The Wire.
But Better Call Saul is good—darned good—and it has the potential to develop into a great series.
That quality is due to the fact that Better Call Saul is created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the team behind Breaking Bad.
But more importantly, Better Call Saul has Bob Odenkirk reprising his role.
Odenkirk has always been a brilliant actor as well as a comedian. He has been able to immerse himself into his roles so that he often is unrecognizable, as in last year’s TV series Fargo. Odenkirk makes us care about the man who will be Saul, sad over Jimmy’s current state and cheering him when he shows his mettle.
Odenkirk has been a longtime personal favorite, going back to the days of the HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show With Bob and David.
While Saul often was the comic relief in Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is definitely a drama with bits of gallows humor here and there. Odenkirk shows how hungry Jimmy is for that one break, yet how he tries to do the right thing.
But Jimmy knows that ambition will win over in the end.
Better Call Saul also will show how Jimmy met Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-Philadelphia cop who would become Saul’s private investigator.
There also is one other returning character from Breaking Bad, but that person’s arrival is a wonderful surprise, and I don’t want to spoil that for you. At this point, no one else from Breaking Bad has been signed up to appear in Better Call Saul, though there is talk that a couple of characters may make cameos. Albuquerque can be a small city!
The first season of Better Call Saul is off to a great start and a second season already is in the works.
Better Call Saul? Yes, you should.
Better Call Saul airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on AMC.
Photos: Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul. AMC photos