All lawyered up

Arts and Entertainment Reviews

Premiere of “Breaking Bad’s” anticipated spin-off makes a strong case for its own success

By Sarah Sisk
Staff Writer

Picture from cdn.hitfix.com
Picture from cdn.hitfix.com

In January of 2008 the cable channel AMC brought to the world its first episode of “Breaking Bad.” Audiences breathlessly followed the tale of Walter White, a mediocre Albuquerque chemistry teacher who learned to make and sell meth to pay for his cancer treatments. White evolved from small-time dealer to millionaire drug-lord, and the former high school teacher’s crumbling sense of morality drove him to acts of depravity and greed.

The show ran for five seasons, its popularity rocketing to epic proportions, before it ended as definitively as it had begun. Addicted fans were left with a craving for more of the quality drama but were forced to wait unsatisfied.

Until now, that is. More breaking-style entertainment is finally here with the premiere of the spin-off show “Better Call Saul.” The show’s star character is the silver-tongued, quick-witted attorney Saul Goodman who, in “Breaking Bad,” helped Walter White launder his drug money and get him out of occasional scrapes. Goodman became one of “Breaking Bad’s” most popular regulars, and the fraudulent crook endeared himself to fans with his paradoxical streak of honesty. The new spin-off’s first two installments arrived on AMC on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 to delight fans with the shady yet essentially lovable lawyer’s backstory.

Years before serving Walter White with his legal wiles, Goodman is a broke and struggling public defense attorney known by his birth name, James McGill. He collects meager paychecks for defending Albuquerque’s youthful delinquents while tirelessly trying to gain a respectable clientele. He disguises his shabby lifestyle from prospective customers using his signature resourcefulness and charm, only to see his business be lost to his prosperous peers. Desperate to earn the loyalty of a would-be client, McGill enlists the help of two skateboarders to play out an elaborate sham that will place McGill as a hero and earn him the customer’s trust.

However, things go terribly awry: he finds himself quick-talking himself out of a life-or-death situation, and he inadvertently stumbles into a much more criminal application for his legal talents.

“Better Call Saul” is blessed from the start by the success of “Breaking Bad,” yet it faces massive expectations to live up to the unprecedented quality and consistent brilliance of its forerunner. It almost must prove that a favorite supporting character is truly dimensional to be deserving of a show focusing entirely on him. This it manages, and spectacularly, with its first attempt.

With the original writers of “Breaking Bad” at the helm, the spin-off has very much the same flavor as the original show. It rings of familiarity with the same choice of music, the same New Mexico backdrop, the same authentic characterizations, the same appalling yet effective style of humor and the same dynamic plot developments. The writers wisely adhere to the tested formula, but they set up original storyline and cast to tell a compelling story.

Leading actor Bob Odenkirk retains his character’s electric salesman-like charisma, commanding his scenes with verbal gymnastics that rivet and thrill the audience. He also reveals the more human and grounded side of his character, portraying the lawyer at a vulnerable time in his life when his cocky charm barely conceals his insecurities.

Saul Goodman may be the main attraction, but he is not the only “Breaking Bad” character to make his way into the spin-off. It includes several satisfying cameo appearances that will need no introduction to avid fans.

“Better Call Saul” airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.