Review: Better Call Saul – 1.1 – ‘Uno’

What to say? Reviews are almost entirely lost on something that’s held in such a cloud of expectation, but – that’s never stopped us before.

Firstly, Better Call Saul worked and worked hard to make sure it wasn´t a fan-only zone. It pays off. There´s a lot here for the casual viewer and a tantalising cache of potential for those trying to figure out if they might like to check out Breaking Bad.

It’s entirely possible to watch this show without any experience of Breaking Bad but, in turn, it’s only a matter of time before the neophyte turns their attention to the predecessor  – or sequel, depending on one’s perspective. And look, I’ve already mentioned Breaking Bad twice.

From the outset, the show is confident of itself. No effort is made to disguise that this is the product of much of the BB team and visually, and stylistically, the trademarks are there to behold. From a beautifully, wordless introduction, through to the credits and the ‘flashback scenes’ – we still don’t know what is the ‘true’ narrative focus of the show is –  the signature visuals and music provide a playful tone but we know, from past experience, this is most likely a red-herring.  In any case Saul, down and out, begins a trek down memory lane and in turn, so do we.

Saul is, as you’d expect, Saul-like. Bob Odenkirk, god bless him, tries his damnedest to at least try to downplay the character in the flashbacks but there is not stopping his sheer exuberance. It meanders through the show, popping its head up in more ‘normal’ scenes and it would seem that Jimmy McGill is largely pre-packaged: this is going to be about how Jimmy comes out of his shell rather than the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg.

On that note there are similarities. A financially down and out character who (mostly) means well is forced to take questionable actions. Whether or not a struggling lawyer provides the same impetus as a dying, debt-ridden chemistry teacher remains to be seen, but the comparison itself may be too harsh.

Breaking Bad, lest we forget, began its life as a quirky novelty that many presumed courted humour (‘the guy from Malcolm in the Middle, really? It’ll be shit’ – was the cry). It was the world’s best kept secret until season 4 and arguably season 5. Whether there will be another Ozymandias remains to be seen, but it’s worth avoiding comparing the standards of Breaking Bad when it ended and instead concurrently compare their first seasons. This gives a lot to be optimistic about.

The twin pillars that made Breaking Bad a success was an overarching structure that allowed its finale to be satisfactorily understated so as to reward the viewer. The second was the audience had incredible purchase on the characters, a testament to the realism of the writing team. For the foundations of Better Call Saul, we know one part of where Saul gets to, but how he gets there, and what happens afterwards, is going to be a bumpy ride if Vince Gilligan and co. stay true to form.

Does it cash in on Breaking Bad? Not really. There’s a lot to make fans happy but it’s not peppered with references. Of the character spots in the episode, one was widely publicised and discussed, but the other was a welcome, yet obvious when you think about it, surprise. There are no homages and no cameos, and if the show wants to be taken seriously it must resist, to its dying breath, the temptation to have Los Pollos Hermanos trucks drive by every week. If its ratings hold – as I predict they will – Gilligan and team will have the artistic luxury to weave their tapestry without resorting to such measures.

Let downs? Only the thought that some view this as a Breaking Bad-lite. It’s made by the same people with a character that was beloved but who, even in the series, worked on his own, never relying on his co-stars to prop up his appearances. Think Frasier to Cheers rather than Joey to Friends.

Away from the story, I was disappointed that, post-House of Cards and, indeed, Breaking Bad, the show wasn’t released in one batch. Many would find watching the first season of the mother show week by week a wearisome process now, and it remains to be seen whether this patience extends to Better Call Saul. It might be greedy, but it does seem to be the way the wind is blowing for television these days.

All-in-all, a terrific first outing that should be applauded for its acting and its confidence.

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