Whether you consider Breaking Bad the best television series ever made or merely the second or third, the chance to return to that world has to be 2015’s most exciting TV prospect. That’s the offer of Better Call Saul — the name of which, as all true BB boxsetters know, comes from the catchphrase of inexhaustibly seedy lawyer Saul Goodman, played by comedian Bob Odenkirk.
It’s not hard to see why showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould (the man who gave life to Saul) thought there was more mileage in Goodman. First seen on billboards advertising his ambulance-chasing services, he became both comic relief and a guide to the underworld for amateur drug lords Walter and Jesse, introducing them to money-laundering, hitmen and new identities.
And, even on a show full of strange and wonderful characters, Saul was one of the best. So wholly corrupt he didn’t even bother hiding it behind double-dealing or self-delusion like everyone else, he also talked almost exclusively in sarcasm (just one personal favourite: “Don’t drink and drive. But if you do, call me”). He was as cartoonish as a Simpsons walk-on, but also wholly believable and, despite his total amorality, wholly lovable.
So what do we know about the show? Well, it’s a prequel, set six years before the events of BB, though Gilligan has already said there’ll be the same time-jumps as the parent series. Episodes are an hour-long and, contrary to early indications, it’s not all-out comedy.
In fact, Odenkirk told one interviewer, “It’s total drama, man,” before backing down a little to, “85 per cent drama, 15 per cent comedy.” It’s also heavily delayed, arriving on US channel AMC on 8 February, and here on Netflix (yep, gonna have to pay up) “very soon” after. They like it so much, though, they’ve already renewed it for a second season.
As for the cast, alongside Odenkirk will be another BB favourite, Jonathan Banks, aka Mike Ehrmantraut, the sleepy-eyed assassin who we knew went way back with Saul. (The first teaser ad for BCS shows Mike manning a parking booth where Goodman causes trouble, presumably their first meeting.) Other than that, there’s Michael McKean of Spinal Tap fame, as Saul’s brother Chuck.
If that sounds an unlikely name for a Jewish lawyer’s brother, that’s because, as Saul let slip in BB, “The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys.” In BCS, he’s Jimmy McGill, and the show follows his journey to becoming Saul.
Which is the crux of why this is such a mouthwatering prospect: all that plot, narrative drive, meat, as well as the sheer fun of hanging out with a wildly entertaining bastard. Breaking Bad was all about character — Walter’s progress from cardiganned teacher to ruthless mob boss, or “You take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface”, as Gilligan put it. So the decision to make Better Call Saul an origin story gives us the chance to dig deep into the soul of Saul. It also means you don’t even need to be BB-literate to join in.
“It’s not a clip show,” says Gould, “we’re trying to make something that stands on its own and has an entertainment value of not just seeing old favourites.”
It seems pretty certain it’s going to be more than 15 per cent funny, too. For Odenkirk, the role marked a transfer from sketch comedy, notably Saturday Night Live and his own Mr Show. He’s a natural comedian, used to looking for the laugh. One show he worked on in between Sauls was Fargo, the adaptation of the Coen brothers movie. Black in tone and deeply quirky but also deadly serious about motivation, plot and realism, it seemed very much the kind of show Better Call Saul might be. In case you missed it, it was excellent. It didn’t, however, have the makers of Breaking Bad behind it.
'Better Call Saul' will be available on Netflix from early February