The faded yellow Suzuki Esteem cruising through a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood — and the vaguely familiar figure behind the wheel — look like they’ve seen better days.
The old-model car squeaks to a halt outside a quaint house. A middle-aged man steps out. Disheveled and preoccupied, he oddly places his wristwatch, his early-generation flip cellphone and car keys in a mailbox outside the home.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Better Call Saul”: A photo caption accompanying an article in the Feb. 7 Calendar section about the new television series “Better Call Saul” identified show co-creator Vince Gilligan as Vince Gill. —
The fact is, on this warm afternoon, it’s more than the technology that seems to be caught in a time warp. Some day the man in question will become every “Breaking Bad” fan’s favorite shady, wise-cracking lawyer, Saul Goodman. But in this moment and presumably for a good part of AMC’s new spinoff series “Better Call Saul,” which kicks off Sunday, the actor Bob Odenkirk will be playing the mightily struggling Jimmy McGill.
As a small army of technicians and crew members track his movements, Odenkirk moves to the front door, and a director yells “Cut!” A warm smile returns to Odenkirk’s face.
“We’re at the center of the tornado,” he announced with glee a few minutes later while sipping a raspberry iced tea.
The 52-year-old actor and a troupe of “Breaking Bad” alumni have descended once again on this New Mexico city, and their ensemble work brings with it one of the year’s most highly anticipated series debuts from “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan and one of that drama’s key writers, Peter Gould.
During a jampacked premiere last week in downtown Los Angeles, Gilligan was jubilant as he, Gould and Odenkirk were congratulated by a swarm of well-wishers that included Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and other “Breaking Bad” cast members.
“It’s a ... good show, in my opinion,” Gilligan has declared in a very uncharacteristic flash of bravado from the show runner whose low-key humility and Southern-flavored warmth have made him one of the most admired and well-liked creators in Hollywood.
Despite the confidence, Gilligan and Gould are also nervous, especially about fans who might be expecting a “Breaking Bad” redux.
“There’s been all this love for ‘Breaking Bad,’ and it’s been nothing but a good thing for me personally,” Gilligan said in a recent interview. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I know that there’s now this double-edged sword of expectation. That weight is so high, and the possibility that there might be this big swath of viewers that might be disappointed makes me very anxious.”
Gilligan has personal experience with the risk of spinoffs. As an executive producer of “The X-Files,” the 47-year-old helped create “The Lone Gunman,” an “X-Files” spinoff about a group of geeky investigators. Favorable reviews and the pedigree of the popular Fox drama did little for the low-rated series, which was yanked after 13 episodes
“I’m really proud of every episode,” added Gould, who created the character of Saul Goodman for the second season of “Breaking Bad.” “But the better I love the show, the more nervous I get. This is a different animal than ‘Breaking Bad,’ and it has to succeed or fail on its own merits.”
“Better Call Saul” breaks off in different directions from “Breaking Bad,” which captivated millions of viewers with its offbeat mix of family drama and drug underworld saga, spiked with throat-gripping tension and explosive — sometimes stomach-churning — violence. During its five-season run, the drama became one of TV’s most honored shows and helped vault AMC into the elite ranks of cable networks.
In the new show, Cranston and Paul, whose respective portrayals of Walter White and junkie wingman Jesse Pinkman were at the heart of “Breaking Bad,” are absent — at least for now. The only regular cast holdover to join Odenkirk is Jonathan Banks, who played Mike Ehrmantraut, the no-nonsense “fixer” who met a bloody demise.
“Better Call Saul” also lacks the life-and-death stakes of its predecessor, or the all-consuming question of whether White could still be redeemed despite all his horrible deeds.
But there is clear synchronicity between the two shows, courtesy of the wicked, black-comedy sensibilities of Gilligan and Gould. The series is anchored by a revelatory performance from Odenkirk that caroms between outrageous comedy and gripping dramatics, sometimes in the same scene.
And although Cranston and Paul are off the grid for now, the producers promise “Breaking Bad” “Easter eggs” to reward fans.
“The biggest risk we have with this show is the combination of tone,” Gould said. “It whiplashes between drama and comedy in ways that are unpredictable. It’s a unique combination, and I have no idea whether people are going to dig that.”
Significantly, the “Saul Goodman” that delighted fans of “Breaking Bad” is not the same person in “Better Call Saul.” Said Gould: “Saul seemed almost too happy, too at ease with himself. It’s an identity that Jimmy McGill makes up. The question is, why?”
As with “Breaking Bad,” morality is a key theme. “It’s fun to examine a character who is struggling with his moral center,” Gilligan said. “He wants to be good, but is he being good because he is good, or is he doing it for other people? Is there a reason to be good aside from the primal evolutional instinct?”
McGill’s outwardly upbeat demeanor conceals a vast reservoir of exasperation and desperation — he operates in a closet-sized office, and business is not exactly booming. His most important relationship is with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who is a partner in a top law firm but for unknown reasons has become traumatized and is unable to leave his house.
Odenkirk said one of his objectives with the role is to occupy the discomfort zone.
“I didn’t feel connected to Saul Goodman, but I feel connected to this guy,” he said. “He feels a lot more sympathetic. He’s trying to get respect. We’re happy for him and rooting for him, but you know it’s not going to go well. It’s fun to watch things go wrong for him, and it’s a hoot to watch him scramble. I said to Vince and Peter, ‘Do me a favor: Kick the crap out of me.’ People like it better when he’s getting his ass kicked.”
AMC has already shown their hand on how they feel about “Better Call Saul” — it has ordered a second season.
“We have to be back on the air at the same time next year,” said Gilligan, who has curtailed some promotion of the new series to work on next season. “And we want this to be as good as it can possibly be.”
‘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)