If you are a passionate fan of television (especially during what we call the great Golden Age of Television, that finds its most classic examples on cable and premium cable), then you are aware that this February, the creator of the storied “Breaking Bad” series will be following up on that achievement with the prequel series “Better Call Saul.” Starring “Breaking Bad” side player Bob Odenkirk in the days before he became Saul Goodman, “Better Call Saul” tracks the origins of the storefront lawyer instrumental in helping Walter White (Bryan Cranston) become Heisenberg, serving as both an early 2000s period piece and intriguing backstory for one of modern television’s great achievements.
This show premieres on AMC February 8, but the first three episodes have already been made available to critics, so let’s get meta for a minute. The reason you are, right now, reading this piece, for a show that doesn’t even premiere until next month, is not really because of the show. It’s because of the show that came before, and the intensity that accompanies a massive year-old cultural moment trying to find its sequel. And also because of AMC.
See, I am writing this article right now on the eve of AMC lifting embargos on “Better Call Saul” reviews. That means I am writing this with the full knowledge that whatever gets printed on Indiewire will be competing with a hundred other publications tomorrow — and if not tomorrow, then certainly down the line.
That’s the nature of television criticism at this point, one we’re accustomed to. But in this particular case, that knowledge makes it hard to approach “Better Call Saul” because there are a few obvious narratives and angles that, depending on your opinion of the show, are like black holes, threatening to consume us all…
Review: “Better Call Saul” Bows Better than “Breaking Bad” Ever Did
Review: “Better Call Saul” Flops For Want of “Breaking Bad’s” Magic
Review: I Am The One TV Critic on the Planet Who Never Saw “Breaking Bad,” And I Do Not Understand What The Hell This Show “Better Call Saul” Is About
To be honest, of all those angles, it’s the last one I’d honestly be most interested in reading. Because no creator ever wants to be stuck in a rut, but the fact is that the same creative team, working with many of the same actors, in the same town, with the same crew will not be able to escape the comparison to what came before.
Though, come to think of it, this might be a genius-level move. No matter what Gilligan and Gould had chosen to do after the conclusion of “Breaking Bad,” they would never have escaped the presence of “Breaking Bad.” Leaning into that scenario, by creating a prequel series, actually feels like a pretty smart decision.
Here’s what “Breaking Bad” had to deal with, when it began its run on AMC: A star best known as “the dad from ‘Malcolm in the Middle,'” a complicated and dark premise unlike any that’s come before. (“A chemistry genius gets diagnosed with cancer, decides to start really providing for his family!” Yeah, there was skepticism, in the cheap seats.)
But that pilot didn’t dawdle on any of those potential issues. It took each and every one and slapped you in the face with them. You might not have been in love with the show by the end of the pilot, but you knew what you were watching. The pilot had to make sure of that, because you were watching something unlike anything you’d ever seen before.
So perhaps what “Better Call Saul” represents isn’t an attempt to keep a good thing going. Perhaps what it represents is the opportunity that all great creators should be afforded — the opportunity to take what came before, and build upon it. Maybe even make something magnificent out of it.
Because thinking about “Better Call Saul” as a prequel doesn’t work. Thinking of it as another step on the ladder, towards truly exploding what’s possible with this medium… There’s a famous metaphor, with ancient roots, that Sir Isaac Newton most famously set down as “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It’s often used to refer to the nature of scientific progress, but it works in an artistic context, and it works here.
AMC made three episodes available to critics, and that proves to be a valuable thing. Because with each subsequent episode, the show has grown richer and more complex. More its own show, its own story.
And that’s actually a real possibility for the show. It could find its own life. What’s most exciting about “Better Call Saul” is actually how well-mired it is in the world that is the reality of the legal system — how tedious and unglamorous and un-“Law and Order”-ish it can be, to be processed by the courts. Even after Saul/Jimmy starts to dig into a case that might be his making, the polyester and linoleum of local courtrooms proves to be a key undercurrent. And It helps the series feel like its genuinely own self.
“Better Call Saul” is not free of flaws. It’s odd, for one thing, to see a series with a lot to prove about being its own thing lean pretty heavily into pop culture references (the two biggest ones being the classic films “Network” and “All That Jazz,” which both happen in a knowing-but-yet-obvious way). And It’s a show coming out in the year 2015 which so far is in love with its straight white male cast members, largely keeping women and minorities on the sidelines — not the most progressive of moves.
Also, the way it chooses to push the ambiguity surrounding key characters has a coyness that will rope in binge-viewers, but cable television still has some level of servitude to the week-by-week model. There are definitely elements to the storytelling that will be frustrating, over “Better Call Saul’s” first few weeks in the world.
But goddamn, in just the opening few minutes of the pilot, Bob Odenkirk reveals (like a decades-long practical joke) that all this time he wasn’t just a talented sketch comedian. He had incredible depths of humanity available to him. Odenkirk has done a lot with supporting roles in the past (he more than held his own on FX’s “Fargo” this spring, for example), but by the end of Episode 3 he proves himself to be more than capable as a lead actor. And the “Better Call Saul” supporting cast is free of slackers. There’s a chance that it could become a real universe of its own.
And that’s the primary issue: Can “Better Call Saul” become its own show, given the expectations weighed against it? Asking a critic to decide for you, early into a show’s run, at this stage of the game, is impossible. Ask us in a month or two. Ask us in a year. Or decide for yourself.
Because here’s the thing: If you loved “Breaking Bad,” do you need a critic — any critic — to tell you if “Better Call Saul” is worth your time? Probably not. But do you have any skepticism in you? For example, were Saul Goodman scenes always your least-favorite scenes of “Breaking Bad”? No one here is judging you: I mean, I really enjoy “Game of Thrones,” but I fall asleep a lot during Jon Snow’s scenes. But that’s the sort of thing to know about yourself, before you consider committing hours of your life to a show you might not even like that much.
Once you figure that out, of course, come back here, to find out what we think going forward. Have the conversation with us. Because we’re interested, because “Better Call Saul” might stand on the shoulders of giants, but it is still a new show. And it’s always fun to figure out what that means, together.