Better Call Saul Pilot Review

It would be inconceivable that this spin-off series from the universally acclaimed, justifiably brilliant ‘Breaking Bad’ would be the equal or superior to its parent series ala ‘Frasier’. However, expectations needn’t be curbed to anticipate a lackluster product from Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk. A Nebraska-based prologue in black-and-white is an impeccable, mumblecore cue to where the series is leaning. It feels like a Mark Duplass piece sans dialogue but with a European looseness. Watching the normally unscrupulous Saul slaving away at a Cinnabon franchise is a humorously low-key introduction to Odenkirk’s rags-to-riches transformation from meek underling James McGill to silver-tongued kingpin Saul Goodman. We see Saul preparing for his climactic speech about his defendants’ “undeveloped 17-year-old brains” is a sensational Pygmalion moment and Odenkirk delivers the persuasively side-splitting closing statement with panache. Saul portrays his client’s actions as an innocuous prank but, in horrifying actuality, the trio violate a corpse’s decapitated head which is revealed in darkly uproarious videotape evidence worthy of Neil LaBute. The peter-and-wolfing reappearance of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is a bit precious but it’s a welcome addition. It progressively becomes clear that the show will hopscotch among time periods but James was never an idealistic attorney who was out to represent completely innocent people. A clever reversal-of-fortune and clue to Odenkirk’s extortion savvy is when James “accidentally” hits a skateboarder who blackmails him into a kickback. But Saul quickly evaluates the situation and turns the tables on his accusers. Odekirk is as sprightly as ever in the role and he truly shines whenever Saul is tasked to spellbind the courtroom with his legalese. The anecdote about “Slipping Jimmy” is sly comic showcase for Odenkirk. The comeuppance afterwards with the two aforementioned skateboarders backfires in typical, unpredictable Gilligan fashion. In many ways, Gilligan has streamlined the growing pains of ‘Breaking Bad’ and this is a much more accomplished seedling. No overt contrivances with Walter White reacquainting himself with Jessie Pinkman and no unpalatable characterizations like the initially loutish Hank. The motto “do good work and the clients will come” is a poignant struggle between Saul and his feeble, but optimistic brother Chuck (the incomparable Michael McKean). When Chuck says “Wouldn’t you rather build your own identity. Why ride on someone else’s coattails?”, it’s a self-referential jab at the critics who said this couldn’t measure up to ‘Breaking Bad’. The cameo hook at the end of the episode is truly mind-blowing. I truly believe that in time ‘Better Call Saul’ will evolve into one of television’s most astute, must-see shows much like its predecessor. Rating: ***1/2 out of **** stars

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