It was never going to be easy for Better Call Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to follow up the show’s predecessor, Breaking Bad, particularly when you take into account how few spin-offs have been successful in the last few decades (some particularly horrifying examples, such as Scrubs season 9 and Joey, spring to mind). In this context I have to admit that I was sceptical the show would work, in spite of the pedigree of its creative staff.
Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as down on his luck lawyer Saul Goodman (although under a different name, James McGill, for now). Odenkirk successfully bounces between the visibly balding post-Breaking Bad Saul, and the younger version who appears later in the episode. As the younger Saul, Odenkirk recreates some of the charm seen in Breaking Bad, but the character is noticeably yet to hit his prime.
The show is, unsurprisingly, visually impressive throughout; every shot is carefully constructed (although importantly does not seem fake). From the lonely monochrome scenes of a depressed Saul’s mall job and apartment at the beginning of the episode, to his enigmatic arrival in a skate park near its end, the show is notably cinematic. In fact, a moment hardly passes in which a screen shot would not make a convincing poster for the show.
To compare Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad’s later episodes would be distinctly unfair. However, when put beside the first few, something still seems to be lacking. We are given nothing quite like the excitement of Hank crashing his Winnebago in the desert, or the impact of Walt’s diagnosis with cancer. Instead, what we are shown is James McGill’s bleak, strained existence, both before and after the events of Breaking Bad, with the first glimpses of true excitement only really appearing in the latter half of the episode. The show seems simultaneously too fast-paced to be beginning on its own and too slow to be a continuation of what it is following.
The risk with this programme is balance: between Breaking Bad and itself, as well as between levity and drama. The show was never going to be a laugh a minute sitcom, whilst Saul’s comic position is necessarily dampened by leading a drama. As a supporting character, Saul Goodman was exceptional; he brought much-needed levity to one of TV’s darkest shows, while still being available as a serious character when needed. His ability to hold a whole series is still, however, untested, and the first episode alone doesn’t prove that he can. Only time will tell how effective a protagonist he can be. However, if the programme did not have the behemoth which is Breaking Bad overshadowing it, this may well have seemed like an excellent start, and for now it is at the very least promising.