Time has diluted the television spinoff. Same-story, different-city “CSIs” and “Real Housewives” shows lent the concept an assembly-line connotation.
“Better Call Saul,” the highly entertaining new “Breaking Bad” spinoff and prequel that premieres Sunday on AMC, revives the Norman Lear 1970s spinoff heyday of “Maude” and “The Jeffersons.” Those shows sprouted from “All in the Family,” constructing their own worlds while remaining stylistically and spiritually true to the original.
Built around meth-cooker Walter White’s eccentric attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and set six years before the attorney met Walt, “Better Call” was created by “Bad” kingpin Vince Gilligan and longtime show writer-producer Peter Gould. The new show (or at least the two episodes made available to critics) captures the grim-humorous tone of “Bad,” but with more emphasis on humor.
It’s always risky to focus on a character used as flavor on another show. But Saul, who on “Better Call” still goes by his real name, Jimmy McGill – as he explained to Walt in “Bad,” he began calling himself Saul Goodman to appease clients seeking a Jewish attorney – makes a compelling protagonist.
He cracks wise and quotes movie lines, as we might expect, and overall is a more pleasant lead character than the constantly clenched Walt. But he goes deeper as well. Odenkirk and the writers have removed a layer of cynicism and mined the decency that Saul sometimes displayed on “Bad.”
Saul/Jimmy was not always a meth-RV-chasing attorney who advertises on TV. He once was poor and at least tried to have some scruples.
In the first episode, Jimmy is scraping by with low-paying court-appointed defender gigs. A sequence in which Jimmy mounts a “boys will be boys” defense of a trio of trespassing teenagers offers a big comic payoff.
“Bad” fans are funny about spoilers, so I will say only that Jimmy, like Walt before him with Gray Matter Technologies, nurses a grudge against an entity he believes wronged him. Or rather, wronged a loved one.
While trying to right that wrong, Jimmy picks up whatever work he can. He’s also trying not to regress to his youth, during which he faked accidents and sought settlements. He was known as Slippin’ Jimmy.
In short, and to use terms the corny Saul would appreciate, the character in “Better Call” has not yet broken bad, and he struggles with dark nights of the Saul.
Set and filmed in New Mexico like “Bad,” “Better Call” visually evokes the mother show at every turn, with skyward shots of fluffy clouds and desert-floor shots of criminals writhing, mouths taped and hands tied. Just like old times.
Familiar faces from “Bad” pop up in the first two episodes. One of them is security specialist Mike (Jonathan Banks), with whom Jimmy has some brushes.
Another “Bad” figure offers this wonderful line: “Are you punking my abuelita?” (“Better Call” is set in 2004, when “Punk’d” and Ed Hardy were still cultural influences, with the latter clearly a style guide for the show’s criminals.)
The pilot zips along, stopping only for some great, sustained shots like one that involves thick shadow, streaks of light and Jimmy kicking a trash can.
Things slow down in the second episode, when a would-be comedic interaction lasts far too long.
The second episode also makes it clear Saul/Jimmy needs something to grab onto other than the grudge. It and petty defense cases are not enough on which to hang a series.
But an interaction late in the episode suggests a larger goal in mind and the possibility of Jimmy getting his own Jesse.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
BETTER CALL SAUL
What: AMC’s “Breaking Bad” spinoff stars Bob Odenkirk as attorney Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman
When: Premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC, with a second episode airing at 10 p.m. Monday, the series’ regular time slot.