Thursday, April 30, 2015

Better Call Saul (Season 1)

Creators: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Michael McKean, Jeremy Shamos, Julie Ann Emery, Kerry Condon, Mel Rodriguez
Original Airdate: 2015

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

                           **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad** 

There's a scene in "Pimento," the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul's premiere season, during which a reveal comes that causes us to rethink everything we thought we knew about these characters up until then. It literally changes the trajectory of the entire series, forcing us to evaluate just how high the ceiling for this show can really get. While it's only a slight stretch to say underachieving public defender Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) enters this devastating conversation as a likeable screw-up, only to exit it as Saul Goodman, he's definitely well on his way. This just speeds up the process.

Better Call Saul Title Card
If "prequel" is a dirty word and the surest sign of oncoming creative bankruptcy, then "spin-off" is an even dirtier one. Combining them both is a recipe for failure, especially when you consider it's a spin-off of arguably the greatest dramatic television series of all-time. And if we're really being honest, few were clamoring for the origin story of Walter White's sleazy, wisecracking "criminal lawyer" Saul Goodman, as entertaining as he was in small doses.

Would this be a half-hour comedy? An hour-long drama? Neither? How much would it resemble Breaking Bad, if at all? Expectations weren't exactly high, and no one quiet knew how to feel about the possibility of that show's sacred universe being tinkered with in any way. And yet somehow, someway the finished product manages to be reminiscent of the show that inspired it while still being nothing like it at all. It sure isn't perfect, nor necessarily as focused or consistent as it needs to be yet, but the potential moving forward is cause for legitimate excitement.

Any fears  this character couldn't carry a show prove to be unfounded, as co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould far surpass expectations to deliver a first season that's not just as good as it could possibly be under challenging circumstances, but better. And it's doubtful anyone thought we'd be talking about Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean being a shoo-ins for an Emmys. In other words, it's mostly all good, man.

Jimmy/Saul's future as Cinnabon manager, "Gene"
In true Breaking Bad form, the series begins with a flash-forward, picking up after the events of that series have concluded. Filmed in stark black-and-white, we see Saul making good on his promise to Walt that he'll be managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. That's exactly where he is, balding, mustachioed and stuck in a humdrum work routine under an assumed identity after Walt's trail of crime forced him out of Albuquerque. His only joy seemingly comes when pouring a drink and watching old Saul Goodman commercials in his recliner, even if the events in this initial season call into question whether he's instead mourning that time, contemplating what could have been.

The series then begins in 2002, before he was Saul and six years prior to when he takes the country's most famous chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin on as his client. He's Jimmy McGill, a struggling public defender in Albuquerque working out of the back of a nail salon while caring for his older brother, Chuck (McKean), a respected attorney who's now been left an emotionally crippled recluse from electromagnetic sensitivity. And Jimmy's battle with Chuck's law partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) to cash out his incapacitated brother's share in Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill has put best friend and HHM associate Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) in an impossibly difficult position, compromising her personal and professional loyalties.

Jimmy also manages to get under the skin of courthouse tollbooth attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), with whom he eventually forms an uneasy alliance to take down white collar criminal couple, The Kettlemans (Julie Ann Emery and Jeremy Shamus). Desperate to leave his con artist past behind and earn respectability as a lawyer, Jimmy struggles to to do the right thing, even as outside forces pull him in the other direction, inching him closer to a criminal future as shady attorney Saul Goodman.

One of many visual callbacks to Breaking Bad
Initially, the first few episodes become a game of feeling the series out and counting the call-backs to Breaking Bad, some so covertly placed they almost requires multiple viewings to take in. But if it were just about that, the show wouldn't work, and there is a concern early on it will occur as the show attempts to find its creative footing. The pilot ("Uno") provides an absorbing, if methodically paced introduction to Jimmy and the cast of characters surrounding him, as well as a reminder of just how much we've missed the city of Albuquerque as a setting, as cinematographer Arthur Albert (taking over for BrBa's Michael Slovis) goes to great lengths to make it the show's most prominent character. Many shots visually echo its predecessor like mirror without coming off as a cheap copy since they're often almost equally astounding and fun to compare. 

Between the familiar locations and cold opens that categorized BrBa as a TV institution, it's clear this series will at least be to treading some of that common ground. It's hard not to compare Jimmy's ugly Suzuki Esteem to Walt's Pontiac Aztek or look at the entire Cinnabon flash-forward as the Walter Whitewashing of Saul/Jimmy, complete with cooking segments and a physical appearance that even resembles his depressed, loserish client in that show's pilot episode. Where it deviates sharpest is in tone, mainly because the flashier, more overtly comedic protagonist of this series calls for a different approach from Gilligan and Gould.. At times it more closely resembles FX's darkly comic miniseries Fargo in that the humor's so twisted it's always threatening to spill over into dramatic tragedy.

The least interesting material in this series often involves the heavier crime stuff, like the brief reemergence of BrBa's Tuco Salamanca (guest star Raymond Cruz), whose surprise appearance comes off as little more than fan service. While there's little doubt it's exciting to see him in his pre-meth king days, that's tempered by knowing no matter how intense it gets, no real harm can come to Jimmy on his way toward becoming the flamboyant, scheming Saul. Tuco's appearance is merely the catalyst for introducing him to the criminal world and opening the door for Nacho (Michael Mando), who's clearly being established as a major player. But it's Jimmy McGill's figurative death that this series hinges on, as a clearer picture is painted of how a guy seemingly so committed to getting on the straight and narrow, fell off the morality wagon.

A flashback to Jimmy's con artist past
Jimmy's personal relationships that provide the show's most compelling moments, as well as his desire to shed the "Slippin' Jimmy" con man reputation he cultivated back in Chicago with best friend and partner in crime, Marco (Mel Rodriguez). Or at least that's before big brother rescued him from a potential future behind bars. Chuck, mental illness notwithstanding, is established the successful, straight-laced attorney Jimmy could never be since he's his own worst enemy.

Just as Gilligan utilized masterful cold opens from the past, present and future to convey valuable information and flesh out characters over Breaking Bad's five seasons, the same approach helps establish the dynamics of Jimmy and Chuck's relationship here. And it's a complicated one we think we understand until the wool is pulled over our eyes, causing us to question what we thought was true about their relationship.

We're also forced to rethink how much Odenkirk was capable of as an actor and whether he'd be able to carry an hour-long series requiring him to flex some of the same dramatic muscles Bryan Cranston did, albeit with a bit more comedy thrown in. And while no performer's work (on TV or otherwise) over the past decade compares with Cranston's, just the mere fact Odenkirk's opened up such a conversation in only ten episodes has to be viewed as a promising sign. He took what was previously an effective comedic sidekick and filled him with a depth and complexity that no only stands on its own in this series, but could potentially enrich minor elements of Breaking Bad on subsequent viewings.

Chuck runs for cover in his space blanket.
Comic veteran Michael McKean, even less known as a dramatic actor than Odenkirk, has a surprisingly emotional arc as this control-obsessed man paralyzed by this mysterious condition that strangely seems both out of his hands and of his own making. He has this incredible scene where it's evident just how debilitating this illness is, as a trip out the front door to retrieve the paper in space blanket (Episode 1.4, "Hero") becomes this hilarious and heartbreaking freak show that caused me to simultaneously laugh and cringe with disbelief. In a clever bit of foreshadowing, it also demonstrates just how far Chuck's willing to go to prove Jimmy wrong and fit him into the box in which he always believed he belonged.

At first, Chuck's partner at the firm, Howard Hamlin, seems to be set up as a stock villain, seizing on his vulnerability and screwing Jimmy over at every turn. And watching what appears to be a one-note performance of sleaze from Patrick Fabian, there's no reason to think otherwise. Until there is, and you gain a greater appreciation for just how much he was doing with the character, causing a total reevaluation of his intentions throughout the ten episodes. Similarly, Jimmy's best friend (and maybe more) Kim would seem initially to be another throwaway, but over the course of the season she also gains resonance as the only person who actually believes in and supports his legal ambitions, even going so far as to put her own future at HHM on the line.

The more we get of Rhea Seehorn in the Kim role, the more she excels, and her scenes opposite Odenkirk are some of the most fun and playful of the series, even as she still manages to make the character both the toughest and most vulnerable in the series. Of all the similarities with Breaking Bad, Jimmy and Kim's relationship just might be the biggest, as its hard not to think of the flashback scenes of Walt with Gretchen, and how that damaged relationship served as the inciting incident that eventually led to his dark transformation. Already with more screen time than that sub-plot, you have to believe whatever causes Jimmy to become a "criminal lawyer" will somehow involve Kim.

Mike Ehrmantraut's backstory is explored in "Five-O"
Highly anticipated as it's been, the glimpse into how Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut became Saul Goodman's "fixer" and Gus Fring's right hand man is one of the least eventful arcs of the season. To be fair, it's very early, but this is the where you start to see some of the inherent limitations of a prequel. Because Mike was such a specific character viewers got to know so much about on BrBa through his memorably agitated, hangdog facial expressions and violent code of honor, there was a real danger in actually fleshing out his past. A past that didn't need to be conveyed since Banks already did such an exceptional job of it with so few words.

The Mike-centric episode (1.6, "Five-O"), detailing the tragedy he suffered as a cop in Philly that drove him out west is the bleakest, comic-free of the season. It might also be the least interesting since you could easily guess most of what it entails. Thankfully, that doesn't make Banks' powerful performance any less impressive, even if most of its content confirms why Mike is strongest as a supporting character rather than the lead. As a one-off it's fine, but it's still a reminder that the last thing we'd want is a gritty cop prequel series centered on him. Starting off as a court parking attendant harassing (and being harassed by) Jimmy, it takes a little while before he gets out of the booth, but their interplay once he does is predictably satisfying.

The decision to show how Mike evolves from retired cop and ostracized grandfather to career criminal was always a no-brainer, but his biggest draw as a character was always how viewers never had to stop and question why this old man's such a bad ass. Doing that will be tricky, since he was the one Gilligan creation who specifically benefited from a lack of backstory. But it does but into clearer context the protectiveness he showed for Jesse in Breaking Bad, perhaps making those scenes and that relationship resonate stronger on repeated viewings. All this could also make Mike's eventual death at Walt's hands play more tragically if revisited with a better understanding of his past. It's cruelly ironic (and not at all coincidental) that Mike's first big job in this series involves a drug deal with a nerdier, more incompetent version of Walter White. It's little touches like that lift the series and convince us surprises are still possible within the confines of a prequel format.

Slippin' Jimmy in action
Jimmy ends the season (Episode 1.10, "Marco") much closer to becoming Saul Goodman, but maybe not as close as we thought he'd be. No loud ties yet. No inflatable Statue of Liberty or Constitutional wallpaper. But just as the revealingly crude title sequences hint that it's coming, so does the story. But the bigger question just might be who's responsible. Is his brother right? Is this a man who was always incapable of change? His future actions in Breaking Bad suggest Slippin' Jimmy with a law degree is very much a "chimpanzee with a machine gun." But this first season speculates whether it had to be that way and how much of it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting from his insecure, know-it-all brother holding him down. If it were up to Chuck, Jimmy would spend his life in the HHM mail room or at best relegated to continuing to practice elder law.

There's this possibility teased throughout that Jimmy turned over a new leaf and had the potential to be as great and respected a defense attorney, albeit in a far different style than his brother. In court, we see he has the skills, but the big surprise of the season is that his worst enemy doesn't end up being himself, but the one person he always trusted to have his back. We still don't know what happened to Chuck to cause his mental break, even if his actions speak to something deeper and more resentful. There's also a history between Jimmy and Kim that's yet to be fully explored.

The big question is what happens when Gould and Gilligan inch closer to the Breaking Bad timeline. Do they flash a title card on the screen telling us to watch that series and come back? There's also tons of speculation as to when the inevitable Walt and Jesse appearances take place, when Gus Fring enters the picture, and how much  more of Cinnabon manager "Gene" we'll get to see. And it wouldn't take many leaps in logic for Jesse to show up in Nebraska, or for Saul, like Walt, to triumphantly return to Albuquerque to finish business as Jimmy. The possibilities really are endless.

Kim and Jimmy share a smoke
So far, the show's bread has been buttered with Jimmy's dysfunctional relationship with his brother and his bond with Kim, but it's easy to imagine neither lasting since anyone who didn't appear in Breaking Bad is fair game for a "trip to Belize," so to speak. In the meantime, there's more than enough to keep viewers occupied besides the mythology. It's unlikely Better Call Saul reaches even an eighth of the heights of its predecessor just because the stakes can't possibly be what they were on that series. But the best news is that by the season finale, it's hard to argue that it's not already better than most of what's on TV right now.                         

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