“I’m a lawyer, not a criminal,” protests the protagonist in “Better Call Saul,” a spinoff/prequel to “Breaking Bad” whose initial episodes ask, but don’t fully answer, whether Bob Odenkirk’s sleazy defense lawyer can carry a show on his own. Unlike its sire, this AMC series arrives both burdened by expectations and with a turbo-charged launch behind “The Walking Dead,” virtually ensuring a decent amount of sampling. Essentially, “Saul” is an extended origin story, possessing “Bad’s” flavor and black comedy but at least initially lacking its emotional core. While that dictates a mixed verdict, the creative auspices nevertheless bode well.
Without giving too much away, “Saul” opens with a terrific framing device, using black and white to draw the viewer in. (“Bad” creator Vince Gilligan directed the pilot, which he co-wrote with Peter Gould.)
From there, it’s back to six years prior to the beginning of “Breaking Bad,” as we meet Saul before the latenight ads and drug-dealer clientele. Instead, he’s plain old James McGill, a struggling lawyer taking cut-rate public-defender cases to make ends meet, while trying to look after his brother (Michael McKean), who is on a vague health-related sabbatical from his partnership in a big corporate firm. (When James enters the firm’s tony conference room he unleashes an imitation of Ned Beatty in “Network,” which is greeted by blank stares.)
As played by Odenkirk, McGill is a combed-over mess, filled with ambition and simmering rage. Still, it’s only by accident that he begins what promises to be his protracted stumble toward the dark side, after a chance encounter with a couple of ne’er-do-wells trying to rip him off, which triggers both a scheme of his own and a dizzying assortment of unintended consequences.
Best-known as a comic actor and the source of considerable mirth in “Breaking Bad” (one reason “Saul” was originally conceived as a comedy), Odenkirk is perfectly fine in bringing added dimension to the character. It’s asking a lot, though, to build virtually every scene around him with minimal support in these opening hours, considering Jonathan Banks’ enforcer, Mike, has yet to fully emerge as a significant player.
In short, “Better Call Saul” requires a certain leap of faith, trusting that Gilligan and Gould – having so excelled in delivering unexpected twists and surprises on the first show – can gradually build this into a more compelling and fully realized concept. In the early going, they display a deft touch at slowly peeling back layers on the characters, if perhaps a bit too assiduously to as yet establish “Saul” as anything approaching the sort of addictive experience its predecessor became.
To be fair, the series is unlikely to ever approach the operatic highs of “Breaking Bad,” which also traced a middle-aged guy’s moral descent into darkness, but did so with the heightened stakes of a fatal diagnosis, a family and the notion of Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, as Gilligan has described it. And matching one of the great series ever is too much to ask.
Indeed, it seemed pretty obvious going in that this spinoff promised to be a narrower concept – and unlike “Breaking Bad,” the show won’t have the luxury of sneaking up on anybody. For now, “Saul” contains some attractive elements, fine moments and a fabulous pedigree, but even Jimmy/Saul might be forced to concede the jury’s still out in terms of proving it has the right formula.