ENTERTAINMENT
01/23/2015 04:02 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

'Better Call Saul' Review: The Spinoff Is Not In 'Breaking Bad' Territory, But What Is?

AMC

It will come as no surprise that "Better Call Saul" is well made. The previous entry on the resumes of creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould is "Breaking Bad," which, during its five-season run, grew into an incredibly potent blend of slippery morals and thrilling aesthetics.

So, of course, "Saul" looks good. The first three episodes are well-paced and they competently introduce the strands of a plausible prequel for Saul Goodman, Walter White's fast-talking, ethically-challenged attorney.

What "Better Call Saul" doesn't have yet is its own set of independent reasons to exist.

Get past the outer layers of the new show -- the somewhat lighter tone, the familiar mordant humor, the deadpan portraits of bland condos and squat mini-malls -- and its core set of narrative concerns start to look mighty familiar.

Saul -- who, six years before he meets Walter White, goes by the name Jimmy McGill -- is a middle-class guy who feels hemmed in by life and beset by any number of difficulties. He works hard to put on a chipper persona at the courthouse, where he hustles low-paying gigs defending lowlifes, but when his mask slips, the rage and desperation just under the surface quickly emerge. Hard-pressed to make ends meet and pressured by trying family circumstances, Saul/Jimmy makes some poor choices and a few situations spiral off in bad directions. When he tries to undo his mistakes and even when he's trying to resist the temptation to stray from the straight and narrow, he still often tries to tip the odds in his favor. At no point is it hard to imagine the show's lead character talking himself into a life of deceit and self-justification.

So far, so "Breaking Bad," am I right?

Except that in the early going, despite a game, energetic performance from star Bob Odenkirk, Jimmy/Saul is just not an especially magnetic lead character. It's nice to see the familiar face of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who is as delightfully exasperated as ever, and Michael McKean displays skill in his low-key role as well, but the other "Saul" characters don't particularly stand out, nor does the greed-driven overarching narrative seem all that fresh. The jury is still out, of course, but it's hard to escape the suspicion that a story built on the aspirations of a sketchy, self-serving lawyer whose fate we already know may be a somewhat rickety enterprise, at least in the early going.

That said, it took me a while to permanently latch on to "Breaking Bad," in part because Walter White's story was shallower and somewhat derivative when it began. In its first and second seasons, I respected "Breaking Bad's" diligence and especially the skill and versatility of its cast, but it wasn't until the third and especially the fourth seasons that I truly fell under its spell. Therefore "Better Call Saul," given the array of talent in front of and behind the camera, has earned far more than three episodes to prove itself.

But I must confess that a feeling of deflation crept over me at certain moments as I watched the first few hours. No spoilers here, but some sequences looked a lot like certain scenarios that played out many times on "Breaking Bad": A middle-aged man stood back and contemplated a chain of events that he had put into motion and that played out in an unexpectedly unpleasant ways.

Was that man as charismatically watchable as Walter White, or O.G. anti-heroes Don Draper or Vic Mackey? Not yet.

The thing is, as I noted in my review of "Backstrom," (a much less worthwhile show), I'm little fatigued at being asked to feel even a couple of shreds of sympathy for the poor schnuck at the center of a morass of his own making. For one thing, my memories of the people whose lives were destroyed by the previous Albuquerque-based screwup are still fresh. Also, depending on your interpretive criteria, we are in either the second or third decade of the Feel Sad for the Wayward Anti-Hero Era. Around these parts, stocks of pity for middle-class, intelligent, reasonably well-educated men who repeatedly and intentionally break the rules are critically low.

(Sidebar: What I wouldn't give for a "Breaking Bad" spinoff series about how a dead-eyed, hollowed-out Skyler and a rightly furious Walter Jr. went about rebuilding their lives, or a CW show about Holly in 2025 as an ass-kicking crime-fighter. But those kinds of shows don't seem to be on-brand for AMC, and a few years ago, that fact would have made me sad. Though it's daunting to contemplate the television explosion we're living through, I'm thrilled that there's a growing array of networks and outlets willing to supply an increasingly diverse array of protagonists and explore a pretty varied group of narrative goals.)

Of course, most shows only wish they could reach the level of aesthetic mastery "Better Call Saul" demonstrates out of the gate, but my counterintuitive hope for the new AMC drama is that it gets messier, less controlled and less perfectionist in its tendencies. The truth is, despite wanting to like the show, there were moments in "Saul" in which I had suspicions of being "Boardwalk"-ed. That's the term I use whenever I wonder if I'm being asked to positively assess a show that ticks all the "Prestige TV" boxes but does not possess an unruly spark of life or an emotionally necessary take on the human condition.

Settle down, "Boardwalk Empire" fans. Yes, I know, the HBO did occasionally perk up and come alive, but not nearly often enough. Like "Saul," "Boardwalk" had a creator who was connected to one of the ultimate Prestige TV vehicles, and as was the case with the Nucky chronicle, "Saul" has a fine cast and great directors. But the HBO drama ended up revealing itself as an expensive, well-tailored empty suit that tended to prioritize structure and surfaces over everything else. I always thought Steve Buscemi did a good job in the lead role, but the show itself lacked a consistent reason to live (and snagging Emmy nominations for deserving actors is not enough of a reason). "Better Call Saul," unlike "Boardwalk," may prove itself to be more than the sum of its perfectly adequate parts, or it may end up looking like yet another understandable but possibly ill-advised attempt to supersize a TV franchise.

"Saul" may yet become every bit as vital as "Breaking Bad" was at its height, but I couldn't deny that there was a slightly airless quality to the new drama's first few installments. Could that be because viewers of "Breaking Bad" know, more or less, where Saul will end up? (It's worth noting that "Breaking Bad's" third season felt a bit forced at times for similar reasons: The writers had to make the end of the season dovetail with events depicted in Season 3's first episode, and thus those installments, whatever else they did right, felt especially constrained at times.)

In any event, there's time for Gilligan and Gould to complicate things in fruitful ways. The second half of "Breaking Bad's" run was much better than the first because it was so much more knotty and unpredictable. There were terrifically painful and sometimes funny collisions between Jesse's doofus-thug naivete and Walter's ambition and stupidity. Once the show made Gus Fring's whipsmart discipline a more permanent presence and added the volatility of big drug cartels to the mix, "Breaking Bad" arrived at something beautifully explosive and controlled. Toward the end, the show's aesthetic rigor was balanced by the witches' brew of complicated emotions its characters were trying (and sometimes failing) to tamp down. By the end of the ride, watching "Breaking Bad" was like witnessing the controlled demolition of a volcano -- it was dangerous, deliberate, amazing and gleefully reckless all at once.

To be clear, "Better Call Saul" doesn't have to create the particular mixture that "Breaking Bad" did and reproduce that product with 99 percent purity. It'd be wrong for the show to try, and it'd be wrong for any of us to expect another Heisenbergian tale. But for now, what we've got are a whole bunch of similarities: A lead character who, underneath the bad haircut and cheap clothes, feels cheated and misunderstood; a man whose way of life involves minimizing the bad things that he does and that other people want to get away with.

I'll keep watching, of course. But there are times, truth be told, when "Saul" seems a little too much like its lead character: Slick, smart, desperate, driven to please and a little bit afflicted by flop sweat.

"Better Call Saul's" first two episodes air 10 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8 and 10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9.

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