“Better Call Saul.” For months now, people have been eagerly awaiting the spinoff of “Breaking Bad.” Would it tarnish the legacy or enhance it? Exploit its parent story or exist independently from it? And would it be any good at all?
Enhance, both and yes. Far more lighthearted and less immediately violent than its progenitor, “Better Call Saul” may or may not answer the big philosophical 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.
It also shows how a series can be both part of and apart from its parent. Because creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are versatile masters of television unfettered by the often-destructive weight of prior glory and, perhaps most important, show star Bob Odenkirk really is all that.
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.
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, and from any potential source.
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 beauty of Saul in “Breaking Bad” 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. And we can’t wait. AMC, two-night premiere Sunday and Monday, 10 p.m.
“The Blacklist.” It is impossible to overstate how much I love this show.
Even with its many contrivances (several missiles were shot at a small black-ops prison in the middle of the sea in last week’s episode, yet all the main characters survived!), MacGuffins (currently in the form of something called the Fulcrum) and repetitions (once again agent Elizabeth Keene (Megan Boone) is telling mentor/frenemy Red Reddington (James Spader) that it’s over).
I love this show because Red is such a drama queen, ruthless, righteous and resolute, and Spader is having So Much Fun with him. I love it because Elizabeth has actually grown as a character in ways both good and bad, which is exactly what you’d expect when you consider all that has happened.
I love it because it features an international criminal/political cabal that actually meets, in person, and includes beloved actors like David Strathairn (currently) and Alan Alda (previously). And I love it because the villains are always so villainous, their crimes so switch-backed and complicated, and Red is somehow always at the nexus in a way that makes (mostly) sense.
And I know many other people love it too. But now it’s on a new night, Thursday’s, right up against “Scandal.” Fortunately we live in a DVR nation so you can join Olivia Pope for some white wine too.
Me, I prefer Red. NBC, Thursdays, 9 p.m.
“The Jinx.” The grandstanding, publicity-seeking killer is a standard in murder mystery fiction, taunting police and sometimes journalists with exhortations to “follow me, I’ve got nothing to hide.” In Andrew Jarecki’s new highly stylized documentary series, a similarly self-aggrandizing offer is all too real. Robert Durst, a New York real estate scion, has never been charged in the murders of his wife and friend, but many people believe he did them.
Like the popular podcast “The Serial,” the six-part “The Jinx” re-investigates, reexamines and, in some cases, unearths evidence and testimony about the crimes. All with Durst’s blessing and participation. The result is a chilling look not only at two horrible crimes but power, influence, money and celebrity. What “In Cold Blood” was to literature, “The Jinx” hopes to be for television. HBO, Sundays, 8 p.m.