11:30 am EDT, February 7, 2015

‘Breaking Bad’s’ lawyer gets lucky in ‘Better Call Saul’ (early review)

In need of a new hit, AMC looked to their best horses – Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead – for spinoff ideas. The first of the two offshoots, Better Call Saul, premieres February 8 on AMC and will please those who are missing the dark side of Albuquerque.

The first three episodes of Better Call Saul, which were provided to Hypable in advance of their airing, introduce us to the world of Saul Goodman Jimmy McGill six years before he meets Walter White.

There are numerous questions that co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould set out to answer in Better Call Saul, and they’re tackled with the same level of intrigue found in the original series. Chief among them: How did Saul turn into the memorable, colorful character we fell in love with in Bad?

With that idea comes a surprising number of other intriguing questions: Why did he switch from the name Jimmy to Saul? How did he and Mike find each other? And has Saul always been a criminal lawyer?

The cold open of Better Call Saul, directed by Gilligan, wastes no time in throwing a bone to Bad fans. The show actually begins after the events of Bad and finds Saul making good on a promise he made to Walt in the penultimate episode of the beloved series: “If I’m lucky, in a month from now, best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha,” he said in the episode titled “Granite State.”

Yes, Saul is now a Cinnabon employee, and after getting home from his job at the mall one day, he pops in a reel made up of his old “Better Call Saul” commercials.

Then, the prequel begins.

Better Call Saul finds Jimmy in the early 2000s struggling to make a career for himself as a lawyer. He’s battling several issues, including a brother who has a mental illness. It isn’t clear exactly what’s wrong with Chuck (Michael McKean), but his issues have forced Jimmy to be the breadwinner for the two.

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Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean in a scene from Better Call Saul

Money is another problem for Jimmy, and unsurprisingly, it’s one of the main motivators in his quest to become a bigger, badder lawyer (sounds like Walt, doesn’t it?). Unlike Saul’s life in Bad where he had a security guard, a secretary, and his own office, Jimmy is his own secretary, he has to drive a crappy yellow Suzuki Esteem, and he barely owns an office.

Saul takes on a slew of cases over the course of the first three episodes, but they’re presented in a way that positively influence the overarching plot lines. The first case Jimmy takes on, involving three teenage boys, is quite messed up. We’re hoping that it’s foreshadowing the types of crazy cases Jimmy will have to take on in the episodes ahead. After all, how crazy of a lawyer do you have to be to defend teenagers who decapitated a body and had sex with the head?

The pilot sets up several interesting premises, including Jimmy and his brother Chuck’s involvement with the latter’s firm Hamlin Hamlin & McGill. Jimmy wants his brother to be bought out of the company since he’s no longer working there due to his mental illness, but the company likes to think the brother is on an extended sabbatical.

So what’s up with Chuck? He’s ill – but what he’s suffering from isn’t made explicitly clear. We know that he is refusing to use or be near any sort of [spoiler!], and he’s confident he’ll return to work… whenever he gets better. The problem is that Jimmy can’t keep financially supporting him.

Things turn more dramatic in episode 2, directed by Michelle MacLaren, and remind us of Breaking Bad thanks to certain Albuquerque landscapes, threats, and set ups. And just like Bad, Saul adds humor to intense moments – but the dark humor here spreads to all of the characters, including a familiar face from Breaking Bad, [spoiler]. This drama ignites Jimmy, and thanks in part to [spoiler’s] partner Nacho, leads him towards becoming a criminal lawyer. Fans will feel like they’re home thanks to this episode.

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Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk in a promo photo from Better Call Saul

Mike (Jonathan Banks) – the other major name coming over from Bad – appears in the first three episodes of the show, but he doesn’t play an important role until the third episode, when it starts to become clear how the two are going to work with one another.

For his part, Bob Odenkirk is playing a different version of Saul while leaving us a small trail of personality traits that are fully expanded by the time the events of Bad roll around. It’s fun to watch this weaker version of Saul try to get his way when he had much less experience.

Better Call Saul is off to a captivating start and is taking its time in answering the big questions that fans want to know the answers to. Season 1 looks like it’s going to focus largely on the origins, and that’s perfectly okay in our book. Breaking Bad fans will appreciate the references to the original series and have reason to stick around for the long haul.

Anyone who’s skeptical about the show should give it a try and hang in there for at least the first two episodes to get a sense of where the show is going. Since the show has been slowing revealing answers to the big questions, we’re feeling very eager to see the future episodes – a feeling we also experienced while watching Bad.

The show premieres Sunday, February 8 at 10 p.m. eastern/pacific before it settles into its regular Monday schedule on February 9 at the same time.

Note: We were asked by AMC to not spoil certain aspects, hence the “[spoiler]” areas.

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