Friday, April 10, 2015

New TV Show Mini-Review: Better Call Saul

I loved Breaking Bad.

I think it is one of the truly best television shows ever.

So I was very excited to see the spinoff sequel/prequel Better Call Saul.  In preparation I went and did a Netflix mini-marathon of Saul-centric episodes.

For those who don't know, Saul Goodman was Walter White's shady, sleazy lawyer on Breaking Bad. He mostly provided comic relief but would also come in with some rather sage advice.  One of his associates was Mike Hermantraut (Jonathan Banks), an ex-cop who got his hands dirty as a fixer/cleaner.

The opening to first episode of the new show is fantastic.  It is almost a silent film but it picks up perfectly where we left the character.

But then the show goes into flashback and here is where it loses some of its steam.  Breaking Bad was a gradual acclimation to a darker and darker world.  The further you went, the more complicated things became.  Show creator Vince Gilligan throws you into the deep end without a lot of set up.  The most jarring part of the show is watching Saul (at this point known by his real name James McGill), take strange care of a strange character played by Michael McKean.  Don't get me wrong, I like writing that doesn't spoon feed you, but this was a tough slog.

But things improved very quickly.

Once James' relationships come into sharp focus, the show flies on its crisp dialogue and fantastic direction.  The producers of Breaking Bad made sure to import the high quality of their previous show here.  And Bob Odenkirk has been such a revelation.  On Breaking Bad, his character never really rounded out dimensions.  But Odenkirk has kicked up his technique and showed us layers and ability I never new he had.  He plays James McGill not as an inherent sleaze ball, but as a man who knows all of the slick angles but is really, really trying to live on the up and up.

But as great as he is, the real gem of the show is Banks.  In the middle of the season there is an episode centered on Mike where James is a side character.  Banks plays Mike with his trademark stoic minimalism.  But at the end of the episode, he is given a monologue that is so strong, so powerful that it breaks through that cool stoney exterior and breaks your heart.  Weeks after seeing it, it still sticks with me.

Right now, Better Call Saul plays like a fascinating origin story.  I hope in future seasons they flip through time a little more and see what his post-Alberquerque life is like.

But for now, the writing, directing, and acting make Better Call Saul one of the best new shows around.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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