Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) embodies the unusual juxtaposition of the attorney as struggling artist. We’re so used to seeing ambulance chasers portrayed in cinema and television, glancingly, as comic sleazeballs that it’s a bracing change for a series to try and position one as the center of our sympathies. Jimmy’s a motor mouth, a gifted talker who got a law degree because he doesn’t seem to be all that great as a con artist. As a public defender in Albuquerque, he’s got potential, but hasn’t quite found his sea legs. In an early scene, Jimmy’s defending three boys for what turns out to be an amusingly grotesque crime, and he’s playing the “kids these days” card when he should’ve been acknowledging the severity of the case in front of him. Jimmy’s got raw talent, but it hasn’t been honed, partially because he’s broke and forever scrambling to scam his way out of the path of an unending succession of collapsing metaphorical dominoes. In the tradition of many troubled people, his desperation short-circuits his perspective.
Jimmy, of course, will become Saul Goodman, attorney to Walter White, Breaking Bad’s meth kingpin, and he will eventually go into hiding and assume yet another name in order to evade the shit storm stirred up by Walter’s ruthless turf wars. Better Call Saul’s first scene shows us Saul in the present tense, after the events of Breaking Bad, working under an assumed identity in a Cinnabon store, just as he predicted he would be. He’s miserable, and the meat of the first few episodes, which are set six years before its predecessor, elaborate on the context of that present misery. This post-Breading Bad life represents a restart in the worst fashion, a washing away of the achievements that Jimmy will presumably cobble together on his path toward becoming Saul. The prologue shows that Jimmy/Saul has decidedly re-grown the “nobody” skin that he so badly sought to shed.
In other words, Better Call Saul is a consumerist identity fable like Breaking Bad, or even Mad Men—another series about a person who reinvents themselves, not only to survive, but to evade the reliable emasculation that awaits inventive, outside-the-box men who can’t find a way to support themselves within conventional society. If that sounds self-glorifying, it is, as these shows tap into a specific kind of intellectualized nerd machismo that’s aimed at those who feel gifted in unvalued fashions, and who suspect that they can do better than their current station in society. Over the course of its run, Breaking Bad got awfully high on its macho fumes, forgetting that it began as a kind of parody of the “one great man” self-mythology with which it eventually began to subscribe. Better Call Saul, however, is engagingly light on its feet; its hero doesn’t wear all the weight of American Male Disappointment on his shoulders. The series mixes the jaunty with the macabre in a manner that suggests the novels of Carl Hiaasen or even, occasionally, Donald Westlake.
The series rests on Odenkirk, a gifted comedian and character actor who’s never before had the opportunity to occupy the center ring. Saul was amusing on Breaking Bad, but he was a punchline that served as a reliable reprieve from the show’s escalating grimness. Jimmy has to be a full character now, and Odenkirk deepens him by building into the performance a more explicit acknowledgement of Jimmy/Saul’s fear of shallowness. Odenkirk allows you to see the panic of a man who’s lived in the shadow of others, and who’s afraid that his unstable quasi-hobo existence really is as good as things are going to get. But this pathos isn’t belabored; it’s subsumed into the sharpness of Odenkirk’s quicksilver timing.
If there’s something missing from the series, though, it’s a sense of interior weirdness. With the exception of Saul, the characters exist to further the plot: There’s little suggestion of inner life within them or within the show’s generally tidy sense of narrative bookkeeping. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have clearly taken quite a bit of care with Better Call Saul in an almost self-conscious attempt to refute the poor reputation of spinoffs, but the craftsmanship is often impersonal. The cinematography is overdetermined and literal (grim black and white for the prologue, close-ups of objects that are so extreme as to announce their foreshadowy intent with an exclamation point), and the plot, while proffering a world that vividly intersects with Breaking Bad in occasionally startling fashions, tends to smother potentially lively tangents. It would be a pleasure to watch Jimmy work his way out of his rut for a while, rather than to see him immediately thrust headfirst into the kind of conspiracy that regularly defined Breaking Bad’s narrative. Better Call Saul is a nifty and promising comic noir, but it also allows you to ponder certain missed opportunities.