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Thursday, May 26, 2022

‘Better Call Saul’ cannot be compared to the failures of ‘Joey’

Breaking Bad” is widely considered to be one of the greatest television programs of the last decade, if not of all time. I agree with this assessment; it’s entertaining, well written, addictive and engaging. So, when I rushed home from work on Sunday night to watch the premiere of “Better Call Saul,” I was expecting something very similar to “Breaking Bad.” Generally, that wouldn’t be too far-fetched; if you’re making a spinoff, you only change it enough to let watchers know the material is just new enough to be interesting. Sometimes this works… and sometimes you get “Joey.” I spent months hoping “Better Call Saul” would not be the next “Joey,” and that the writers would see the potential of Saul alone and not ruin him forever.

Yet, it takes approximately eight seconds to see the “Breaking Bad” in “Better Call Saul.” The arid cul-de-sacs of Arizona and New Mexico, the style of dress, the humor; all the little things are there. However, it takes only a minute to start to see the differences between “Breaking Bad” and Vince Gilligan’s new program. “Breaking Bad” is almost immediately a very tense show: Walter White’s conflict develops by the end of the pilot. The comedy is small, and reserved for uncomfortable and tense moments. A Jesse Pinkman outburst or a pizza on the roof were enough to lighten the mood and keep us involved without wearing us down (something all great dramas do). “Better Call Saul,” however, is funny almost from the get go. After a short sequence alluding to Saul’s post-“Breaking Bad” life, we cut to Saul (who I guess is actually named Jimmy McGill) defending three teenagers who cut the head off a corpse and then proceeded to have intimate relations with said head. The setup is hilarious. The reveal is hilarious. It’s all hilarious. The entire scene is ridiculous, and it sets the tone for the rest of the episode.

Part of the reason the pilot works so well is because this is not Saul Goodman as we know him. He’s not calm, cool, collected or even the slightest bit confident. He can’t really convince anyone of anything; by the end of the pilot, he’s gotten himself cut out of his own scheme. Yet, the beginnings of Saul are evident. As “Better Call Saul” takes flight, McGill is a diamond in the rough. You can definitely see the finished product, but the show is going to need some cutting and polishing before it becomes the scumbag we know and love.

“Better Call Saul,” however, is not without its little bits of fan service. Mike Ehramantraut has a delightful scene as a disgruntled (because of course he was going to be disgruntled) toll booth operator who gives our anti-hero a pretty hard time. The Asian nail salon is back with koi, cucumber water and everything. Tuco (!!!) even makes an appearance at the end of the pilot. 

To conclude, “Better Call Saul” stands as an independent achievement for Gilligan and company. Come for the “Breaking Bad,” stay for something more.

Are you as excited about “Better Call Saul” as Jake? What do you hope they will include in the new series? Let Jake know at smasal@wisc.edu.

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