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Lawyers. We’re like health insurance. You hope you never need it, but man oh man, not having it…no. (Jimmy McGill)
The first six minutes in the televised fictional story of lawyer Jimmy McGill take place in black and white and while that fact has virtually nothing to do with AMC’s Better Call Saul, it was those initial moments that encapsulated my feelings on “Uno,” the series premiere. Incidentally, I continually type “Better Caul Saul” for some reason, almost like it’s a bodily function. But I digress…
The Ink Spots – Address Unknown (1939)
Address unknown, not even a trace of you
Oh what I’d give to see the face of you
I was a fool to stay away from you so long
I should have known there’d come a day when you’d be gone
Address unknown, oh how could I be so blind?
Who’d think that you would never be hard to find?
From the place of your birth to the ends of the earth
I’ve searched only to find, only to find, address unknown
As those curious frames of the Nebraska Cinnabon flowed smoothly across the screen, set to the classic Ink Spots ballad, “Address Unknown,” I couldn’t help but think of Alexander Payne and his excellent 2013 film, Nebraska. Those familiar with Payne’s work writing and directing stories from About Schmidt to Sideways to The Descendants know that his most recognizable and obvious skill is in his ability to depict slice-of-life fiction. His characters are flawed, sometimes eccentric, often troubled, but they’re also reflections of the real in some sense. Nebraska told the story of an elderly, semi-alcoholic Montana man who erroneously believed he had won the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes and his journey to Omaha to collect his perceived winnings. His wife and sons end up as part of the trip and though they all knew how it would end, grew together as a family. An actor whose star had risen in the few years prior, thanks to his role as Saul Goodman on a little show called Breaking Bad, played one of the man’s sons. That actor’s name is Bob Odenkirk.
Nebraska was presented in black-and-white, which generally, in my experience, results in more focus. Maybe it’s because the first two black and white motion pictures I saw growing up were To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men, which I’d have had a riveted eye on if they were green. I always hoped The Walking Dead would match Kirkman’s print comics in that same black-and-white form, but other than a few special re-airs, it was in color. My eyes were transfixed as Better Call Saul brightened my screen, an anticipation that comes from a lead character I already knew. “Gene” managed that Nebraska mall Cinnabon and when a potentially menacing patron stared him down and approached, he was afraid. That man continued walking, eventually embracing a friend, and “Gene” sighed. When he got home, he poured a hard liquor drink and sat down to channel surf as the Midwest snow began to fall. He then pulled out a small box, hidden deep in a closet, which contained a passport, some documents, and a handgun. He then sat down in his chair, leaned back, exhaled, and began to wonder when his life spiraled out of control.
That first sequence, a flash forward to the disguised, paranoid, empty, lonely, broken Saul Goodman, after the events of Breaking Bad, were presented to show the after effects of the actions of Walter White on just one person involved in his crimes. And, well, going back to the penultimate episode of that series, “Granite State,” this bruh knew what he was talking about:
If I’m lucky, in a month from now, best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.
Payne’s film, to certain audiences, could be seen as slow and possibly even boring, because it has no interest in speed or racing to a finish line. A slice of life is just that, and the film seemed to replicate it perfectly. But, if you watch the movie a bit deeper, what emanates from the story is a silent, understated confidence. Payne knew his story was good. Dern, Squibb, Forte, Odenkirk, and everybody else in that film knew they were participating in something important. The black-and-white and the fact the Cinnabon happened to be in Nebraska along with its manager, “Gene,” led me to the connection, but in truth, what comes from the first two hours of Better Call Saul is a show that knows where it wants to go, knows who it is, knows people will watch, and also believes in itself.
The two episodes, “Uno” and “Mijo,” might not be the fully realized vision of where executive producers Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan would like their new series to go, but they’re damn good in their own right. Bob Odenkirk (Jimmy McGill) is a longtime comedy mind with even longer dreams of his place in Hollywood. He told Jon Stewart last Thursday night that it’s hard to believe his current position is real, using the term jaded to describe his mentality over the years after being told repeatedly that something major was going to happen, only to find out that wasn’t accurate or, more likely, never being called back. But, this time, even he has to know it’s legit. AMC made sure to show its own confidence in the project by renewing it for a second season months before the first episode even aired. “Uno” set a record for the most watched cable premiere in television history. So far, so good.
Let me tell you about a young guy, actually he was about your age. He lived a long way from here in a town called Cicero, Illinois, and in Cicero, he was the man. I mean when he strolled down the street, all the corner boys would give him a high five and all the finest babes would smile at him and hope that he would smile back. They called him “Slippin’ Jimmy,” and everybody wanted to be his friend. (Jimmy McGill)
In “Uno,” we learn Albuquerque defense attorney Jimmy McGill, who would later become Saul Goodman, was once a “slip and fall” specialist who was attempting to change his ways and practice law the right way. He was failing, losing clients to bigger firms, including one in which his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), was a named partner. Chuck has an unspecified illness, but in the few scenes he appears in, he’s indoors, seems afraid of the outside world, and even puts on a “space blanket” when Jimmy accidentally brings his cell phone into the home, in fear McGill didn’t ground himself properly. The best way to describe Chuck is as a brilliant man who may be losing his mind, certainly the tin-foil hat type. McKean does a good job in showing Chuck’s blemishes while still illustrating idealistic tendencies. In the second hour, he stumbles onto a bill that indicates Jimmy may be back to his old tricks and his eyes portray a subtle level of disappointment.
McGill is a public defender and not a bad lawyer, but he’s one who has to look into a courthouse bathroom mirror and channel Jim Carrey, saying “It’s show time, folks,” before heading into the courtroom. He has to build himself up before he goes to work, but, fittingly, his mechanism for doing so comes from “The Mask.” What face is he going to show and what lies behind that smile, that frown, that glare? We have several questions for Better Call Saul as a story and probably have since the series was announced and picked up. Who is Saul Goodman? Well, he’s James McGill’s alias. What kind of man WAS Jimmy McGill? He’s troubled, he likes to drink, he’s struggling as an attorney, and he’s willing to cut corners to make ends meet. But, he doesn’t appear to be evil. Is there a kind of system restore point where it feels logical for McGill to end up being the Saul Goodman that meets Walter White? Absolutely.
The question outside of the show’s story itself that every single person around the world watching wanted answered, though, was the most important. Can this show escape the weight of its big brother, Breaking Bad? It’s almost unfair to ask but it has to be asked, because Better Call Saul doesn’t exist without Breaking Bad and the cult status of Saul Goodman. Some of the same people are involved, not the least of which Gilligan and Gould, and those in the Breaking Bad fan base will be the earliest of adopters. So is Saul…Bad? No, but that’s a good thing.
Breaking wasn’t…Bad, until it was. Critics weren’t through the roof on night one and I can’t count how many people I’ve recommended the series to who have given up early in the first season because they were yawning and couldn’t figure out why people were so huge on it. It wasn’t the world’s greatest pilot episode. Jesse Pinkman wasn’t even supposed to make it out of the first season. It changed. It grew and all of a sudden, after three or four episodes, it got better, then one day, it was the best thing on television, perhaps ever. It became Michael Jackson.
The only fair way to scrutinize Saul is as a comedy-drama, not in comparison to Breaking Bad. Looking at a spinoff and expecting the original is a losing proposition. Of course Better Call Saul isn’t Breaking Bad, it’s just a damn fine television show. It’s well-acted, with Odenkirk continuing to show increasing range without words, the highlight being his reaction when potential clients second-guess selecting him as their attorney after a hard-sell at a New Mexico restaurant. He’s really good. The other five key members of the cast, particularly McKean and Michael Mando, who plays Nacho Varga, Tuco’s associate, are excellent. We haven’t seen much of Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, or even of Jonathan Banks, who reprises his Breaking Bad role of Mike Ehrmantraut in a few of the show’s lighter moments.
If you visit the show’s website, you can see brief bios on all six characters, but on screen, we don’t have much to go on just yet. That’s by design. One other thing Gilligan did exceptionally well in Breaking Bad was not exposing every dirty secret right out of the gate out of a misplaced obligation to lay out a paint-by-numbers introduction to the series. He wants you to watch and just let the story unfold and he needs you to trust him. It’ll all make sense in the end. And I do trust him and I do trust Peter Gould and I do really like this show…I like it a heck of a lot.
Holy shit, is that Tuco Salamanca?! (Jason Martin – Outkick the Coverage writer)
The one thing I do know after the two-night premiere of Better Call Saul is really the only thing that matters. I desperately want to spend more time in Saul’s world. I loved my first trip this week. Also, man is it good to be back in Albuquerque. And, finally…
I’m proud of Jimmy McGill. He’s having drinks with the hottest daughter from Just the Ten of Us. Kidding, but not really. Jamie Luner is quite a catch for Bob Odenkirk’s hair.
Even if his office is nothing but a hole in the wall in the back of a nail salon, even though he’s already had guns pointed at him, even though every scheme he’s tried has backfired, even though his own brother thinks he should change his name to avoid being associated with the successful Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill firm (which is straight up cold blooded), I’d still give him a ring.
But since I can’t, because he isn’t real, I’ll just hit those digits via my television remote on Monday nights, hopefully for many years.
AMC needs Saul to be good. When Mad Men ends this summer, it’ll be the end of an era as both the shows that put that network on the map will have permanently exited stage left. The Walking Dead is a mega-success, but outside of that, every AMC property is niche programming that doesn’t generally rate well. This one had to be a home run. In the first two hours, their rookie sensation crushed a three run shot to dead center.
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