When I first heard of the proposed spin-off of Breaking Bad I thought it was a bad idea. I'm not opposed to the idea of spin-offs it's just I know for every Frasier there is a Joey. When a spin off goes wrong...it can go really wrong.
The very idea of soiling the memory of Breaking Bad didn't sit well with me and I was sceptical if the writers could pull it off. Well, after viewing the first two episodes on Netflix I'm happy to admit I got it completely wrong. It is simply brilliant.
Now, brilliant might seem heavy praise for a show only two episode old but in those two hours I saw better writing than I have in entire drama series. In the opening scenes, beautifully shot in black and white, showing a once rich and successful (in his own way) man now reduced to watching old videos of himself and slowly coming to terms with his new life, had more meaning than some dramas achieve in whole hour episodes. Echoing Ray Liotta's character Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Saul too was now "an average nobody... (living) the rest of my life like a schnook".
Saul was one of the lighter comic characters in Breaking Bad and this has carried through to the new show. Lighter in tone with a subtle comic performance from Bob Odenkirk it could still pack a dramatic punch. If you had forgotten this was situated in the pre-Heisenberg drug world of Albuquerque we were soon reminded with the brutal leg breaking of the skate boarding twins.
Viewing it as a Breaking Bad viewer only adds to the enjoyment of the show. Seeing Mike's almost non-existent role in the opening episodes only leads to excitement, as we know what a pivotal part of Saul's life he becomes. My jaw actually dropped at the re-introduction of Tuco. Vince Gilligan gives Breaking Bad fans enough little nods and winks without it ever becoming too much. Seeing Tuco cooking for his grandmother made my mind instantly shoot back to him preparing tacos with Hector Salamanca, which Walt and Jessie try to poison only to be thwarted by the old man's ringing of his bell.
There are interesting narrative parallels to be drawn between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. At its core, Breaking Bad was a story of what it takes to make a good man go bad and here we are presented with the same question, but for Saul. For he is not the money obsessed and morally bankrupt person some felt he would have been all along. Instead we are presented with a hard working lawyer doing his best and trying to break into the big time. He struggles taking care of himself and his sick older brother. He bargains and negotiates for the skater's lives and pays for their medical bills. In the face of temptation from Tuco's associate he does not take the "easy" path to money and does his best to stay straight. What does it take to get from this man to the Saul we see in Breaking Bad. What will it take for Saul to break bad?
One thing to consider for the future of the programme is how much dramatic tension they can get from putting Saul in life threatening situations. When Tuco points his gun at Saul we know he doesn't pull the trigger as we know Saul lives, not only that but we know where he is going. The viewer almost knows too much. Of course drama and tension can still exist when the viewer knows the outcome. I remember watching Touching the Void and being gripped by a disaster story being told by the survivors, yet I still found myself asking, "will they survive?" as if the interviews were from beyond the grave. Keeping tension and drama going for 90 minutes or two hours is hard enough, but over an entire series or even multiple series could be challenging.
Of course, I'm being picky, the truth is I loved it. For me the most exciting thing is I feel there is so much more to come and so many more questions to be answered. When will Mike leave his parking booth and enter the story for real? Will we see Gus introduced? Will Walt reappear, even just for a split second "was that really him?" cameo? The biggest questions are however, how quickly can I pass the time until the next episode and why can't all television be this good?