"What do you think about 'Better Call Saul'?"
That's the question fans of "Breaking Bad" and people who think about television have been asking ever since the possibility of the spinoff, which premieres Sunday, was proposed. And the concern for the "prequel" spinoff was not so much narrative as existential.
Is it a naked marketing ploy for AMC, struggling to find another hit? A gimme for fans who may have admired "Breaking Bad's" definitive rigor but still long for more? Will it tarnish the legacy of "Breaking Bad" and all it stands for or enhance it? Will it further television's age of exploration or return it to an older more soap-selling model in which successful series are expected to spit out equally successful spinoffs?
That's a lot pressure for any new series, especially when you consider that we already know how Saul's story ends: not in an epic fashion.
Though prefacing the events chronicled in "Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul" opens as a sequel. Bob Odenkirk's frenetically confident underworld lawyer is surviving his post-Heisenberg days as the manager of a Cinnabon. In a mall. Of some bleak and snowy town. Where he vacillates between boredom, panic and Rusty Nail-fueled nostalgia.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Those words could describe "Breaking Bad" as well, but though "Saul" co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould remain fascinated with the forces and choices that make the man, "Better Call Saul" is a very different story about a very different man.
Far more lighthearted and less immediately violent than its progenitor, "Better Call Saul" may or may not answer the big philosophic questions that have been foisted upon it, but it does prove that a series can satisfy fans and the network marketing department and still be very good.
Because Gilligan and Gould are versatile masters of television unfettered by the often-destructive weight of prior glory and, perhaps most important, Odenkirk really is all that.
Although studded with fine supporting characters, including some "Breaking Bad" crossovers, "Better Call Saul" is a one-man band of a show. You either like Odenkirk's nervy, nervous and surprisingly soulful performance or you don't — and it's pretty hard not to like.
An origins tale, "Better Call Saul" centers on the man who would become Saul, Jimmy McGill, an all-American loser. Not the brilliant but marginalized borderline personality so popular in today's television, but the real deal, a creature held together by flop-sweat, desperate cunning and doggedly delusional ambition.
A two-bit Albuquerque attorney whose "office" is the utility closet, Jimmy ekes out a living as a public defender, representing the kind of clients who are depraved enough to sexually abuse a corpse and stupid enough to videotape the proceedings. He drives a banged up yellow Suzuki that belches enough black smoke to blur the ironic name of its model ("Esteem") and never manages to get enough validation stickers to park it. (The surly parking attendant will be recognized by "Breaking Bad" fans as Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut).
He brims with boisterous self-confidence that often quickly devolves into whining. (The sound Jimmy makes in an early episode when his car is hit should be immortalized at the Smithsonian.)
Yet he also has an instantly endearing quality that so many television characters lack: self-awareness. Jimmy knows exactly who and what he is, and he's not looking for change. He's looking for leverage.
Particularly through a battle he is fighting with a prestigious (i.e. preening) law firm that is defrauding Jimmy's brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a founding partner currently laid low by a psychological breakdown. But also more generally, he's out to exploit any angle from any potential source.
A petty criminal before he became a lawyer, Jimmy occasionally tries to do the "right" thing (air quotes his), but he's working with a seriously de-magnetized moral compass. His zigzag approach to the law has given him a survivor's insight into the criminal mind, but it also leads him into trouble. A lot.
Indeed, the main joy of the show is watching Jimmy get himself out of dangerous situations that are almost entirely of his own making.
The character of Saul was added to "Breaking Bad" not only as necessary exposition — someone had to act as Walter's spirit guide through the netherworld — but also as comic relief. More important, he functioned as a bit of undernourished but still beating heart.
The pre-Saul heart of Jimmy McGill is a much more vivid and obvious presence, even when its owner shoves it in a pocket to free his hands for whatever moral shell-game he is playing. The scenes between Jimmy and Chuck, which could easily skew absurd, are instead deeply affecting (and not just because McKean is a master of normalizing the absurd) as are those between Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn), an attorney at the firm he is fighting.
But the beauty of Saul was his unflappable nature; no matter how dire or dreadful the circumstances, he was able to identify the next logical step and take it. Jimmy McGill doesn't know how to do that yet; "Better Call Saul" will show us how he learned.
'Better Call Saul'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday; 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)