Comparisons with the titanic “Breaking Bad: are inevitable, since this show shares not only creator Vince Gilligan but is a spin off of some key characters – here in an origin story taking place before “Breaking Bad”. But this new show – great in it’s own way – really is quite a different animal. “Breaking Bad” felt big, powerful, operatic. A Beethoven symphony of a show. While it had humor, the blasts of dark drama and tension dominated. “Better Call Saul” feels like more of a chamber piece, a string quartet, or a great jazz trio. Quieter, more intimate, leaning more towards the comic, its themes about America and success are mostly fed with a wink, and not a punch to the stomach. The pace is slower too. This is a character study, and it’s content to allow us to just watch some very interesting people working through their strange funny/sad lives without pushing the plot along all that much. It’s an outstanding show, but on its own terms, in its own way.
The acting is terrific. Bob Odenkirk creates a truly likable semi-sad sack with truly questionable morals and decision making ability, but a big heart. Jonathan Banks continues as one of the best television characters ever, his aging ex-cop a brilliant, cold, coiled snake, who always lets out just enough humanity to know that while this guy could kill you in a heartbeat if he had to, deep down he’s a good guy, a loving grandfather, a moral man. Michael McKean does a great job as Odenkirk’s deeply disturbed brother. He will always be a smarter, better lawyer than Jimmy, he will always hold a grudge, and he is Odenkirk’s exact opposite. The guy who – on paper – we should feel bad for, but who is just icy and venal enough to keep us at an intrigued distance. If the character has a weak spot it’s that he can get a bit repetitive, but that’s more a function of how the man is limited by his paranoid psychosis, not a limitation of acting or writing.
As with “Breaking Bad” the writing is specific, idiosyncratic, full of terrific dialogue that sounds naturalistic, but has just the right touch of poetry blended in. And as with it’s predecessor, the direction and cinematography is always at a high level, very cinematic, unafraid of staying in wide shots, or playing scenes in long takes instead of the rapid cutting that still dominates most TV – even very good TV. There are occasional lapses – I saw the twist ending of season 2 coming a mile off. But – if not as driven and instantly unforgettable as it’s parent show - this is intelligent, subtle and special television, not quite like anything else before or since.