Better Call Saul: Can this Breaking Bad spinquel live up to the original?

What’s the name of the show? Better Call Saul

When does it air? Tuesday, from 7am on Netflix

What is this show? A spin-off series to Breaking Bad that follows small-time lawyer James “Jimmy” McGill (Bob Odenkirk) as he transforms into sleazy criminal advisor Saul Goodman.

Wait, wasn’t Saul shipped off to Nebraska at the end of Breaking Bad? He sure was. In fact, this new series begins with a monochrome cold open that reveals how Saul fulfilled his own prophecy and now ekes out a paranoid existence managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. However, most of Better Call Saul is set six years before he met Walter White or even adopted the name Saul Goodman.

What happens in the premiere? Not much, to be honest. Most of the first episode is understandably dedicated to the slow-burning introduction of Jimmy as a character. Almost verging on overkill, “Uno” lays on the ‘deadbeat sad-sack’ cliches nice and thick, broadly painting Jimmy as a down-on-his-luck lawyer who has zero phone messages, a stack of unpaid bills, an ailing relative and can barely even get his parking validated at court let along actually win a case.

Events do kick-up a gear in episode two, though, as Jimmy resorts to extortion to build his client base, hiring two knuckle-headed skater punks to get hit by a car so he can persuade the driver to hire him as her lawyer. Needless to say, the scheme is a complete farce, playing out like a scene from Beverley Hills Cop as the skaters target the wrong car and everyone winds up at the house of deranged meth dealer Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz).

Is Jimmy a worthy leading man? Jimmy is undoubtedly a more well-rounded character than Saul, who was essentially a source of comic relief in Breaking Bad, with early episodes doing a great job of expanding his role by detailing his myriad personal and professional struggles. Odenkirk, too, is more than capable of fronting his own series, deftly stripping back the sleazy aspects of his character and adding an endearing level of vulnerability that makes Jimmy a more rootable hero than Saul. And yet, I still found it hard to invest in Jimmy’s plight in the same instantaneous way I did with Walter White. Part of the problem is that BCS is a closed circle: we already know where Jimmy ends up, meaning any threat to his chances of success are immediately tempered by the realisation that we already know he comes out on top in the end.

Who are the best characters? Aside from two wonderfully played reprisals from the aforementioned Tuco and Jonathan Banks’s stern fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, the two standout characters from the first episodes are Nacho (Michael Mando), Tuco’s more level-headed partner, and Jimmy’s ailing brother Chuck (Michael McKean). The heartbreaking relationship between the two brothers is the show’s emotional spine and the way Jimmy tries to support his brother while he suffers some kind of mental breakdown lends his character a much-needed layer of pathos.

Is this show any good? That depends on your expectations. If you won’t settle for anything less than another Breaking Bad-style phenomenon then you will inevitably be disappointed. While AMC’s rich, deadpan prequel takes place in the same beautifully bleak locales and centres similarly on one man’s transformation from milquetoast to the toast of the criminal underworld, it just doesn’t carry the same weight as the original series. But if you’re prepared to accept BCS on its own terms, there’s enough here to recommend it, namely Odenkirk’s remarkable performance and the sense that writer Vince Gilligan is on the cusp of cracking this character and heading in some exciting new directions. Remember that Breaking Bad took a few seasons to really pick up momentum – patience is required when dealing with Gilligan’s imagination.

What’s the best thing about it? Jimmy’s Irish accent when posing as his own secretary.

What’s the worst thing about it? Jimmy’s Irish accent when posing as his own secretary.

Should you watch it? The tone wavers inconsistently between melancholia and black farce and the story isn’t quite the compelling character study it wants to be, but for the many Breaking Bad fans out there, there are plenty of charming references to make this a warm return to Gilligan’s thoughtfully stylised vision of New Mexico. And even if you’re not particularly au fait with the story of Walter White and Heisenberg, there’s enough potential in Odenkirk’s marvellous performance to keep you entertained for a few more episodes at least.

Click here to watch a trailer for Better Call Saul

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