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In 'Better Call Saul,' 'Breaking Bad's' creators have another success on their hands

This time last year, "Breaking Bad" creators Vince Gilligan and writer Peter Gould were nervous.

Would their new series, "Better Call Saul," about Walter White's wisecracking, somewhat shady attorney Saul Goodman, be able to compete with the revered show that birthed it? "Breaking Bad," after all, was one of the most influential and honored TV series in recent memory.

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Fans addicted to the intensity and pace of "Breaking Bad" might be thrown by the more sedate and peculiar "Better Call Saul," which showcases Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, a former con man turned lawyer who will eventually transform into Goodman. Still, AMC was so confident that "Better Call Saul" would work that it ordered a second season before the series hit the air.

Their gamble paid off when the first season clicked with critics and viewers alike, scoring seven Emmy nominations, including outstanding drama series, lead actor (Odenkirk) and supporting actor (Jonathan Banks).

But for Gilligan and Gould, the accolades meant they had yet another success to top — or at least live up to.

"Nervousness is just fuel for me, and I'm sure that Peter would probably agree with that," Gilligan said recently as he and Gould discussed the upcoming season in a phone interview. "We truly didn't know how 'Better Call Saul' would be received as a series. Now the fear is that people will say, 'Eh, Season 2 isn't as good as Season 1.' We hope that won't be the case. We hope it will be the opposite."

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The second season, which started Monday, picks up where the first left off: McGill, whose moral center was often flexible, seemed to be on the road to legitimacy as he stumbled upon a large class-action lawsuit. But he is devastated when betrayed by his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a partner in a top law firm who has intense issues revolving around electricity. Concluding that keeping to the straight and narrow path yields little reward, Jimmy turns down a promising position at a large firm and flirts with falling back into his former slickster ways.

"Jimmy is learning to be himself," Odenkirk said a few hours before the show's recent premiere at Culver City's ArcLight cinema. "There's a great and strangely positive undercurrent that he's in. He's getting to know himself while becoming that person that is going to become Saul Goodman. He is getting to know what brings him joy. But that's also going to bring him a whole lot of trouble."

Odenkirk and Banks, who plays Mike Ehrmantraut, the no-nonsense "fixer who met a bloody demise," were the only holdovers from the original cast. The two executives were determined last season to let "Better Call Saul" stand on its own without appearances from key "Breaking Bad" characters.

And fans of "Breaking Bad" waiting for Bryan Cranston (who played Walter White) to appear this season should probably not get their hopes up. (The actor did show up at the show's premiere to support his former bosses).

Gould, who created the character of Goodman for "Breaking Bad," was well aware of the risks in pulling Saul away from the world of White and giving the attorney his own back story. "We had wondered whether people would take the character of Jimmy McGill into their hearts, or if they would be tapping their feet and looking at their watches waiting for Saul — or even Walter White — to show up."

That said, "Better Call Saul" is still the offspring of "Breaking Bad," which collected an avalanche of awards, including four Emmys for lead actor Cranston and three for supporting actor Aaron Paul, who played White's junkie accomplice Jesse Pinkman. During its five-season run, the drama became a pop culture phenomenon while helping to boost AMC into the elite ranks of cable networks.

Gilligan and Gould have promised that this season of "Saul" will have some familiar "Easter eggs" for "Breaking Bad" devotees.

"There are some characters that might be defined as 'deep cuts,' but then there are some other characters that are very iconic to 'Breaking Bad' that will be showing up," said Gould. "Of course, as we move forward, the stories are ultimately on a converging path."

And just as last season, issues of morality and the choice between doing wrong and doing right, even if there is little reward, will be at the core of the dilemmas that McGill will encounter.

Gould said, "There are two phrases in the writers room that we use as guideposts: 'No good deed goes unpunished,' and 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions.'"

Quipped Gilligan, "We're full of cliches."


'Better Call Saul'

Where: AMC

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)


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A version of this article appeared in print on February 20, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "`Saul' breaks its own way" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe