Saul Goodman, the sleazy lawyer introduced to audiences on Breaking Bad and played by Bob Odenkirk with unstoppable greaseball brio, does not much resemble a superhero. Instead of stopping crime, he enables it. Instead of fighting evildoers, he profits from them. His allies are career criminals and scumbags. His secret lairs exist in dumpy strip malls. His only disguise is a not-that-bad hairpiece. His superpowers, insofar as he has any, are the manipulation of legal and extralegal loopholes and a bludgeoning way with verbal excess. And yet Better Call Saul, AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff premiering Feb. 8, resembles nothing so much as the early stages of a superhero narrative: Saul Goodman, The Origin Story.
Better Call Saul is largely a prequel, but it opens in what is presumably the near-present, with a sumptuous black-and-white montage of a dejected Saul working at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska, where he and his new identity scurried off to at the end of Breaking Bad. Lonely, depressed, and watching QVC, Saul pops in a video of his old ambulance-chasing TV ads and, like Dorothy but without the help of a tornado, is transported to a world of color: Albuquerque, 2002. But the Saul Goodman of 2002 is not the Saul we once knew. He is not even Saul Goodman yet. Instead, he is a broke lawyer going by his given name, James M. McGill, trying to avoid schemes and scams while tending to his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a former white-shoe lawyer rendered housebound by a phobia of electromagnetic radiation. (It’s impossible not to hear echoes of Jesse Pinkman in this particular anxiety.) How will Jimmy McGill, a hard-hustling, low-level lawyer taking poorly paying public defender cases and sleeping on a pullout couch in his dingy office, trying like hell to fight his inner huckster, become Saul Goodman?
This is the question driving Better Call Saul. Needless to say, it is not nearly as high-octane as the famous question that powered Breaking Bad: How does Mr. Chips become Scarface? Both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are propelled by the inevitability of their main characters breaking bad, but the story of an innately sneaky lawyer giving into his sneakiness and a mild-mannered chemistry teacher becoming a megalomaniacal meth lord are not transformations on the same order of magnitude. (Better Call Saul, at some point in its development, was going to be a half-hour comedy.) Breaking Bad was a show distinguished from its great drama brethren—and their less-than-stellar ratings—by hairpin plots that Better Call Saul, by design, almost cannot have. Not only do we know James M. McGill will become Saul and that Saul lives, we even know such specificities as how Saul got his new name. (It’s just a homonym for “it’s all good man.”) Breaking Bad was a full-throated opera compared with Better Call Saul’s mellower minor key.
This is not a key without its pleasures. Odenkirk, such reliable comic relief on Breaking Bad, commands the show with twitchy ease, the sidekick who really was ready to take center stage. Better Call Saul is concerned with many of the same themes as Breaking Bad—a desperate man battling his sense of loserdom, longing to reclaim his machismo; the impossibility of making both a good and honest living—but Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the creators of Better Call Saul, have a great ear for how panic sounds in the mouths of different men. Walter White was almost anally obsessed with appearing in cool control, the genius manipulating everything. But in a crisis, Saul becomes the voice-cracking clown, a dervish of neuroticism looking for an out. He doesn’t care if you see him sweat; it’s a sign of his effectiveness.
Yet Better Call Saul, especially at the start, has some of the same problems that plague superhero spinoff series like Gotham and Agent Carter, shows that are also seeking to flesh out a grim fantasy world via a less celebrated character. Better Call Saul is dozens of times better than these series—more handsome, more visually inventive, more thoughtful, more unique, less cartoonish—but like them, it presumes audience interest. Better Call Saul improves over each of its first three episodes, but the first takes for granted that viewers not only know who Saul is, but that they will care about him even in the absence of a clearly delineated character arc. It assumes audience members will be fascinated by the ways that the Jimmy of the first episode is not quite yet the Saul of Breaking Bad, a pretty low-stakes point of entry. The first episode is a sort of shaggy character sketch, meandering along to an abrupt, and welcome, Breaking Bad-style cliffhanger.
Unlike most successful spinoffs, including Frasier, A Different World, Melrose Place, Angel, and on and on, Better Call Saul is not set in a new location, where the only connective thread is the main character and the occasional, much-publicized cameo from a former co-star. Rather, it is set precisely in the same world as Breaking Bad, the underbelly of Albuquerque among a familiar band of criminals. Just look at Better Call Saul—the juxtaposition of low-slung, unassuming Albuquerque and the bleak, Technicolor desert surrounding it—and you can understand why Gilligan and Gould didn’t want to decamp for Nebraska. But this only encourages Better Call Saul’s habit, like superhero shows, of dropping in “Easter Eggs,” or in-jokes to Breaking Bad fans. In other words, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), everyone’s favorite phlegmatic hit man, and a series regular, is not the only familiar face that shows up in the early episodes.
There is a certain irony inherent in a Breaking Bad spinoff. A show heralded for its originality—the way it mixed up genre tropes into an outsized and visceral roller-coaster ride through increasingly fetid masculinity—births ... another show, kind of like it, but more gentle. Better Call Saul improves the further it steps away from the specifics of Breaking Bad. An early run in with a familiar face ends up snowballing into a kind of screwball misunderstanding with a new criminal, Nacho Varga (Michael Mando), at which point the storyline finally gets its own momentum. The saga of Jimmy’s brother, Chuck, and his old law firm, gets going slowly, but it is at least a part of Saul’s backstory we know nothing about. It leaves space for Better Call Saul to get truly original.
Update, Jan. 30: At AMC's request, a reference to a character who appears in Better Call Saul has been removed for spoilerness.